Belgium – Beyond Chocolates !
My husband (K) had some work in Belgium, and I decided to join him for the short trip to the beautiful city – how could I not? Belgium is famous for all my kind of things – Belgian chocolates, Belgian waffles, the ever so decadent Belgian fries and Belgian beer.. This was one trip which was simply screaming my name!
Our accommodation (service apartment) was bang in the heart of the city of Brussels, which was perfect for me, since K would be working during the day time, leaving to my devices to explore the city. We arrived in Brussels in late April, when the weather was beautiful – pleasant during the day and slightly cold in the evenings. The city was drenched in rain every now and then, but rain doesn’t seem to bother us Indians (who usually look forward to the monsoons back home as a reprieve from scorching heat) as it bothers the Europeans, for whom it feels like extension of winters.
Our apartment was super comfortable, so much so that we felt sad that we didn’t have more time to enjoy its many comforts! We made ourselves home in it in no time! We had arrived by an early afternoon flight. The airport was about an hour from our hotel. It was only till the evening that we were fresh and ready for the first sojourn into the city. We just walked around in the city centre (Grand Place). We started the walk with some famous Belgian fries – beautifully golden brown and perfectly crisp fries, served in a paper cone, topped with mayonnaise, ketchup and any other sauce you care for. Armed with this greasy trophy, we wandered around in the beautiful square. The major building that flags one side of the square is the town hall, a glorious building more than 700 years old, towering over the square from a dizzying height of 315 feet! This beautiful square, crowned with innumerable beautiful statues, is dripping with history and mind-boggling architecture, though we later found out that much of the square had been destroyed by bombings in World War II, and some of the buildings we see now are the carefully reproduced replicas of the original buildings.
We strolled further on, crossing the square and entering the market area, dotted with dainty chocolate shops ever so frequently. I bought a chocolate from one of the shops, and K settled for a rich hot chocolate. I had already negotiated with K that for our 4 days here, I would try different chocolates from the most famous shops in the area! The chocolates weren’t exactly cheap (about 10 Euros for each bar or any decent assortment), and so it made sense to put a method to my chocolate devouring madness! Anyways, moving on after the delectable experience, we arrived at what is the most famous landmark of Belgium – Mannekin Piss (literally meaning “little man piss” in Dutch). There are many stories about this little sculpture, one saying this was a little boy who peed on the ammunition of some enemy camp, thus saving the city, another says he was a royal baby who peed on the enemy armies from top of a tree, yet another saying he was the son of a rich merchant thought to be lost, but after a frantic search, was found peeing nonchalantly in a park. Whatever the truth might be, the fact this 1 feet tall statue was the most famous landmark of Belgium says a lot about the quirky people and their humorous and almost boorish attitude! On our way back, we stopped at a waffle stand and dug into some seriously brilliant waffles – topped with nutella, bananas, nuts and whipped cream!
We did debate over the extreme unhealthiness of our first meal in the country (fries, chocolates and waffles), but decided to go all out on the maiden outing and promising to be more sensible from the next day. And in this spirit, we washed everything down with some famous, freshly brewed Belgian beer in a dainty roadside café! Needless to say, we slept like babies that night!
We woke up feeling pretty bloated the next day, and had a very simple breakfast from the hotel’s expansive buffet. K left for work after that, and I made myself a nice cup of tea, and luxuriated in the few moments of peace in the apartment, before venturing out. I decided to visit the town square more thoroughly on my own, and set out by about noon. The weather was splendid, and the walk along the square was really invigorating! I went into the town hall, and boy, it was like being transported back centuries, in the royal embrace of a beautifully decked up palace! The town hall is used as a proud reminder of the glorious riches of Belgium, as well as a practical place for the town’s various public bodies’ meetings etc. The entry ticket for a guided tour was for 5 Euros, which was money well spent for me, as the guide was knowledgeable, giving us great insights and anecdotes about the numerous arts and artefacts around. He also had a great sense of humour, which made the tour really enjoyable! Next, I explored the market adjoining the square. There were quirky boutiques, curio shops, cafes etc., but most of all, there were chocolate shops!
I had done a bit of research, and decided to visit a shop called Mary’s. Mary’s is considered by many as the best chocolatiers in Belgium, no mean feat in a country obsessed with chocolates! So much so, that Mary’s is the official chocolate supplier to the royal family of Belgium, and has even named a few of their chocolates after names of famous patrons of the particular flavour! To top it all, the staff was really warm, and chatted with me, recommending various different chocolates according to my taste. After much deliberation, I settled on an assortment of chocolates, and they packed those on beautiful chocolate boxes (which I now use for jewellery!). Feeling supremely happy after this experience in the magical chocolate house, I went back to the square for a late lunch at one of the many dainty restaurants lining the place. Settling in the veranda of a nice Italian restaurant, with a majestic view of the city hall, I had some nice risotto. As I stepped out of the restaurant, a music band started to play, which felt heaven sent in the beautiful surroundings! I sat down on the stairs of the city hall, and immersed myself in the music and sights unfolding in front of me. I lost track of time as I sat there, watching tourists marvelling at the magnificent architecture and locals hurrying past, children playing with abandon, groups of young adults sitting together, enjoying the great weather and the great music. By the time I got up from there, it was time for K to return. I was excited to tell him all about my day, and shared with the chocolates I had selected much like a little child would share her loot from the day with her best friend! We went to a Mediterranean restaurant nearby for dinner. The food was simple and unpretentious, and we got the feeling that the owner of the eatery had worked his way through a lot to make this restaurant as big as it was. We went for a little walk after the dinner, treading street we had missed till now. After walking for about 40 minutes, we stopped at a famous pub called Delirium Café. It was a loud place, much like other watering holes in Europe, favoured by youngsters out for a jolly time. It was quite a departure from the quiet evening stroll we were enjoying before, but we soon got into the groove of the place, and ended up having a great time dancing and singing there!
The next day, after the breakfast, I wanted to check out a flea market some distance from the hotel. I considered taking a cab, but then decided against it as the weather continued to favour, and a leisurely stroll would take me not more than an hour. Also, I found that I quite enjoyed walking in Brussels, taking in the city at my own pace. And I was glad I did this, as I encountered numerous sights which would have been lost in a cab journey. There was an arena I crossed where kids were skate-boarding, a park where families were picnicking, a few residential streets, a beautiful church (I went into the church, and was amazed by how beautiful and grand it was, surprised that I hadn’t read about it in any guidebook). I arrived at the bazaar invigorated by the sights encountered on the walk. The market itself was quirky and vividly colourful. There were stalls that were selling an eclectic mix of wares – from antiques to bohemian clothes to hats to shoes to classic vinyl records to brilliant African masks and so much more. It was a mela in the true sense. While I witnessed a restrained sophistication everywhere else in Brussels, this place was swarming with a warm bonhomie! Shopkeepers were enjoying as much as the customers, laughing and chatting with abandon. There was a guy who looked exactly like Bob Marley, but was singing Bob Dylan songs on a mike, and every now and then, someone would break into a dance to go with the music. The whole atmosphere was ethereal, and I spent a few hours just wandering around, taking in the surroundings, and missing K while there. I had little titbits to eat from various stalls there (a waffle, some fries and a roll), but didn’t shop for much else, since the stuff that I liked was all bulky and impractical to take to India. I walked back towards the hotel in a very good mood. The shop for the day for my daily chocolate indulgence was “Godiva”, a very famous chocolate brand in Belgium.
I bought a box of chocolates from there (also bought some little sticks with chocolates in the end, like a small lick lolly, meant to be swirled in hot milk to convert it into hot chocolate). I still had about an hour to myself till K came back, and went into a chic café nearby, and read a book while waiting for him. I had booked tickets for a popular Belgian musical band playing at the Cirque Royale, a beautiful concert hall near our hotel. It was just 10 minutes walk from us, and once K freshened up, we made our way to the concert. We had not expected much, as the band was not a well known one for us, and had both agreed to test waters and leave early if we didn’t enjoy it. Though we were not blown away by the music, we did, however, enjoy it enough to stay for over an hour. They pelted out songs in Dutch and English, some slow and others very fast, and we quite liked the way they kept changing their pace according to the mood of the audience. A colourful street nearby, Rue De Bouchers, is a famous restaurant street in Brussels, a humungous number of restaurants claiming space and your attention in the narrow alley. Walking along the street, we encountered numerous over-zealous waiters insisting on serving us “the best food in Belgium”. It was an interesting walk, and we settled for a random restaurant there, not really expecting very brilliant food. We were not very far from the mark, as the restaurants there obviously spent more on inviting the customers in than the actual food. After an average meal, we walked back to the town square, and sat there for some time before calling it a day and returning to our hotel.
This being our last day in Belgium, I decided to venture out of the centre of the city in a bid to explore Brussels a bit more before bidding it adieu. I took a cab to The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a huge church about 20 minutes drive from the hotel. Like I mentioned, the church was HUGE, being the fifth largest church in the world! Walking around, I decided to climb to the base of the dome (which cost me 5 Euros). A breathtaking view awaited me there, Belgium was rendered magical. Even now, that view is what I prefer to remember Belgium by! After admiring the beautiful building some more, I decided to walk back to the hotel, which was a little less than an hour’s walk. Enroute, found the factory shop of the brilliant Godiva chocolates. I did a bit of shopping of chocolates to take back home as gifts from this shop. After a quick lunch at the hotel, I set out once more, this time to Rue De Neuve, a high street shopping destination (what better way to spend a few lonely hours in Belgium than at its main shopping hub).
It had all the high and low end brands that make every trip to Europe so exciting! I spent a happy few hours here, shopping for myself and family back home. All too soon, it was time to return to the hotel where K was already waiting, have one last waffle, a one last serving of Belgian fries, sample one last shop for chocolates (the famous Elizabeth Chocolate shop this time), and set out for the airport.
Even though Brussels is a small city, the 4 days we had there just flew!