Very Sketchy Guide To Brussels

Always at the cutting edge of innovation, ATRIED now eschews the inane travelogue of earlier blogs (such as Munich Parts 1-4) and instead offers the reader real advice which may actually be useful, as well as some silly photos. To set the scene, I travelled with three of the usual suspects (Simon, Clive and Joe) last Friday, returning Sunday.

Euriostar (I could tell you why I’ve spelt it this way but it would seem very juvenile)

Our return tickets cost £88pp in standard class (St Pancras to Brussels Midi) but if you’re prepared to go at unusual times then you can secure them for as little as £58. Standard Premier may be worth it if you fancy a bit more space for a bit more money. The journey takes a little over two hours but you have to check in at least half an hour before (remember to bring your passport!)

There is not much in the crowded departure lounge so eat before security, where there is also a handily placed M&S for last-minute nibbles. There is no luggage restriction up to 85cm long and liquids are fine. The alcohol policy states 12 bottles or cans of beer or 6 bottles of wine or 3 bottles of spirits per traveller (I’m not kidding – this is from their website).

Coach 1 may seem clever but you’ll have a long walk at Brussels Midi and the orientation of the St Pancras lounge means you may as well go for high numbers. If you’re hoping for a game of cards don’t book seats near the ends of the carriages where there are small tables for wheelchair access. Once aboard, and this really is key, if you are going to play Scrabble for money make sure your ‘friends’ keep their mobiles in plain sight at all times.

Grand Place

Our trip centred itself around the Grand Place, a large cobbled rectangle surrounded by opulent Guildhouses, and we wanted to stay nearby so opted for the Novotel about 200m away for less than £80pppn (excluding an overpriced breakfast). The hotel was not fancy but perfectly decent and gave us a bonus view of a very large Smurf from our bedroom window. I’m not Smurfist in any way, but if you are going to go to the expense and trouble of erecting an enormous Smurf statue surely paint it as well?

Enormous unpainted Smurf

After settling in we wandered out for a late lunch and ate in T Kelderke which strangley was refusing to use its outside tables with grand views from the southern corner of the Grand Place but directed customers to an atmospheric vaulted cellar. The Carbonnade Flamande was an extremely rich beef stew that would have benefitted from some vegetables, but the Vol-au-Vent (You don’t see many of those over here any more) was well received.

Typical Belgian cuisine at Kelderke

As one Grimbergen Blonde turned into two the giggling that often accompanies Belgian beer began and grew to an infectious crescendo where we all lost the ability to speak properly and decided it was time for some fresh air. Our crawl headed north but only to the opposite corner of the Grand Place where we sampled Kwak from the Roy d’Espagne and then moved one cafe table along to La Brouette where we opted for large Grimbergens.

The beautiful blonde

Something to note: if you ask for a large beer you will be served a large beer. This one litre beauty, believe it not, was only half the size of the biggest available. This is really the essence of Brussels, and in the interests of investigative travelogue we explored the culture fully. The tables were filled with a cross section of ages, genders, nationalities and social groups, but the one common thread was that everybody was drinking the sweet (but not sickly) and malty beer – wine and spirits were a rarity.

The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, the only stress coming from the efficient but overworked waiting staff. The odd stag group stopped by but didn’t interfere or gatecrash the party. Prices were steepish for the quality (main courses about 20 eurios, a litre of beer 10-15 eurios) but given the setting and ambiance there was no hint of discord. You’d pay the same in London in worse surroundings.

A stylish hat

Culture (yes, really)

Half of our merry band rose early the next morning to visit the Musees Royaux Des Beaux-Arts, which Simon pronounced perfectly to the cabbie at the taxi rank next to the Novotel, only for him to reply “It iz heere!”, pointing at the building next to us. This wasn’t strictly true (I think he just wanted to return to the breakfast he had been dragged from) but it was a pleasant walk half a mile up the hill through the Mont des Arts with fine views.

Mont des Arts

We discovered that the sprawling gallery didn’t open until 11am which allowed us time to explore. After three failed attempts to secure a hot breakfast, during which Simon developed a hunger-induced strop and slipped into a Brexit-fuelled rant, we settled at the attractive but cruelly under-omeletted Cafe Leffe, where a goblet of the eponymous brew and a pain au chocolat only mildly raised his spirits and blood sugars.

The European Commission for Breakfast Rights shall receive a stern email about false advertising

It seems that the Belgians have no interest in either starting or eating early at the weekend, but eventually we saw some interesting art. Breugel (Elder and Younger), Bosch and Magritte are the star attractions, and fascinating they were too despite all being clinically insane in their own unique fashion, but I was strangely drawn to some of the lesser know works such as this curious and thin study by Bouts (c. 1460), depicting the dispassionate beheading of an innocent Count:

The lunacy of Rene Magritte

The Ordeal By Fire (1460)

On our return Clive and Joe had finally surfaced and we went for a late lunch down the Rue du Marches aux Fromages. There was no cheese apparent, but we sat outside Little Delirium which offers no less than 44 different beers on tap. We each went for the 3-glass tasting menu and amongst the finds I can tell you that La Guillotine is a thing of beauty. They let us pair food from the surrounding restaurants and tasty kebabs and noodles were sourced. It’s not quite as salubrious away from the Grand Place, but certainly cheaper.

Clive’s attempt at culture was to take us to see the nearby statue of the pissing boy, Manneken Pis, who is sometimes dressed up in tiny outfits – hilarious the Belgians. I would advise that you look at it in a guidebook and avoid the slow-moving tourists and bizarre street acts.

Shopping

Sunday morning allowed time for a spot of shopping, as long as we wanted to buy either chocolate or waffles which seem to hold a duopoly over the city. As neither was likely to survive the journey home I secured a stylish Delerium pink elephant hat from a stall in the Grand Place for my understanding wife, which she later described, with mock enthusiasm, as “slightly better than the free mug you brought me back from Munich”.

A stylish hat

Despite being gifted an architecturally impressive central square, the authorities seem to want to fill it with almighty rackets whenever possible, which we endured as we ate a light lunch (having learnt the previous morning not to attempt to find breakfast). Some Koreans seem to have been lent instruments they’d never played before and screeched out a lengthy and unfathomable folk tale.

We retreated to the sanctuary inside La Brouette where the waiter bullied Clive for not having another enormous beer. The club sandwiches were a little dry, and served with the usual greasy chips – this is not somewhere to eat out if you have a gall bladder problem. But the banter was fun and the clientele interesting.

Conclusion

Brussels is a small city which makes some odd choices. Some visitors have said there’s really not much to it, and they are probably right. If you don’t like chocolate and beer then it would be an unusual choice for a city break, but if you fancy a few days wandering and people watching in a pleasant setting two hours from London it is hard to beat.

Two further things you should know before setting off for the Belgian capital:

1) The people of Brussels can be mardy and brusque. It’s not exactly rudeness, just a complete disregard for customer satisfaction. A waiter got arsey with us when we sat down just for dessert (the place was clearing out anyway) and then as we got up to leave he threw some menus at us. The taxi driver on the way back to the station initially refused to take us because of the traffic before relenting. (Most of this attitude can be nullified by the good old British response of ‘I don’t give a toss’.) My wife, who understands the Continental species, says this is because they are Flemish. Good for them.

2) Security is omnipresent with police and soldiers hunting in packs of three or four. Quiet and fluid, they will pop up in the Grand Place or sidestreets, at the station and tourist landmarks. Personally, this reminds me of the terror threat no more than putting a seatbelt on reminds me of the dangers of driving. Does this guarantee prevention of another attrocity? Sadly, no. Does it dissuade me from going back to Brussels? Also, no. Spend a weekend in your favourite city and reinforce the message that they shall not win.

(The author has received no remuneration from the Brussels tourist board for this glittering advert of the city, nor expects any recompense from the humble reader. However, if you are looking for a tender and charming chronicle of a personal and absurd journey, Around The Races In Eighty Days would be perfect for your next Euriostar break: www.atried.com/shop)