have you been to Brussels in the dead of winter?

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the Thalys train from Paris to Brussels

Paris Gare du Nord train station

Paris Gare du Nord train station in January

I discovered Brussels in January 2013 and liked it very much. Before I found the job I have now, I had been applying for jobs at the European Commission headquarters. I had had enough of Paris and was seeking a smaller, friendlier, greener city in which to live and work. I fired off my résumé for one particular job posting within an EU institution, and in return received train tickets to go there for an interview. Here’s my account of that lovely but freezing cold weekend.

The high-speed train sped across the flat, snow-shrouded fields of northern France. Travel time from Paris to Brussels normally takes an hour and a quarter, but due to abundant snow and ice on the tracks the trip was lengthened by 50 minutes. By the time we pulled into Bruxelles-Midi station it was pitch black and freezing cold. I walked the short distance to The Sweet Brussels B&B.

Pushing open a massive wooden door, I stepped into a dimly-lit entrance hall where several flights of stairs loomed before me. I climbed the first flight and was met on the landing by a friendly woman named Sofie. She lugged my suitcase up two more flights of narrow, wooden stairs. Room number 3 was a massive, high-ceilinged room with marble fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and a gorgeous art deco lamp hanging over the queen-sized bed. The Sweet Brussels is design-based. Design features, fixtures, and books on Art Nouveau and other artistic styles are everywhere.

We chatted until I realized it was 7 pm and I was starving. I wanted two things: a Belgian beer and a good meal. My hostess recommended just such a place up the road. Within 5 minutes was outside again.

The thing about arriving in an unfamiliar city in the dark is you don’t know where the heck you are. Although the B&B was decidedly hip, it looked like the neighbourhood was not. Even in the dark I could see that it wasn’t exactly swank. Like all districts around train stations, the streets and buildings were kind of gritty. Slipping and sliding on the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I made my way up the road in the direction Sofie had indicated.

Shining like a beacon in the dark, I saw the lighted sign of the Houtsiplou diner located on the Place Rouppe. It was just the kind of place I was looking for: casual-cozy, funky music playing in the background, and a friendly waitstaff who greeted me upon entering. Unravelling my multilayers of outer clothing, I chose a table next to a radiator and told the menu-bearing young man that I’d like a beer. He let me sample a few brews and, in the end, we mutually decided on Leffe.  Incidentally, the three official languages of Belgium are French, Dutch (also called Flemish) and German. The two official languages in Brussels are French and English.

Fries are another Belgian specialty. Generously-cut from a potato called bintje, deep-fried in fat (not oil), cooled and fried again, they’re served hot, salted, and with ketchup or mayonnaise. I ordered a portion along with a gorgonzola cheeseburger.  Happy and warm, I sipped my delicious malty ale and flipped through a magazine while waiting for my meal. The place was cozy with a friendly, laid-back vibe. My meal came, I ate every delicious morsel and ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie for dessert.

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After a round of hearty goodbyes, I stepped back out into the cold night and skidded along the slippery sidewalk to the B&B. It was time for sweet dreams at the Sweet Brussels. It turned out that, being mid-January, I was the only guest there. Thank goodness Sofie and her family live in a flat on the ground floor because I would’ve felt awfully nervous being the sole occupant of the very tall, 19th-century building. My room was silent as a tomb.

The next day was sunny and minus 8 degrees centigrade. In the breakfast room, notes from a jazz soundtrack floated through the air and to my delight I spied a sophisticated-looking coffee machine that shared the counter with baskets of bread, croissants, cereal, cheese, fruit, juices and yogurts (all for me!). Sofie came in and showed me how the machine worked. It’s Swiss-made and the brand name is Jura. It made a divinely creamy cappuccino at the press of a button.

Passage obligé for the tourist visiting Brussels is the Grand Place, just up the street from my hotel. Ringed with gabled and gilded 17th and 18th century buildings, this has got to be the most stunning square in Europe. I later learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I guess it is the most stunning square in Europe.

My photos don’t give it justice because it’s the panoramic sweep, the gold and grandeur – with you standing in the middle – that makes it so resplendent:

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Chocolates galore!

My next destination was the nearby 19th-century shopping mall called the Royal Galeries. Here are some random street shots that I took as I walked along, periodically popping into the ubiquitous chocolate shop to warm up and sample chocolates. Notice the absence of crowds. In the summer Brussels is packed. I love the name of this street below: Herring Street.

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Royal Galeries of Saint-Hubert

This jewel of Brussels architecture was constructed in 1847. Wandering through the arcades, you can easily imagine men and women from a past era strolling under the glass-paned roof. I literally spent hours in this hushed historical space taking refuge from the cold, browsing in every lovely shop, buying and sampling chocolates (again) and stopping for lunch in a tea room:

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Inside the gallery is a fabulous chocolate shop called Mary, preferred chocolate supplier to Belgium’s Royal Family.

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Back outside, I passed a second-hand clothing shop and bought some shearling-lined mittens for 20 euros. It was freezing cold. In another shop I purchased a hand-knitted lambswool Tibetan hat. I accosted a stranger in the Grand Place and asked him to take my photo. Here’s me and my woolly Himalayan hat. Looking at this photo right now, I’m wondering where that big brown scarf went, I haven’t seen it in ages. It was a great scarf…

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As dusk fell over the city, I made my way back to the B&B to warm up and rest before going out again for an early dinner. I returned to the Houtsiplou at 6:30 pm and had practically the same meal as the night before, substituting the burger for a hearty, homemade beef stew. And then, tired but happy, I walked the ten minutes back to the Sweet Brussels, trudged up the three flights of stairs and settled into my vast, warm, quiet room for the night, tucking myself into bed and watching The Sopranos on DVD.  It had been a great day.

Day Two in Brussels to follow …

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