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 …

Part Two, wintry Brussels

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The next day was warmer: minus five instead of minus eight. But the sun had disappeared behind thick cloud and the resulting gloom did not compel me to rush outdoors. So I lingered over a second cappuccino in the breakfast room while listening to classical music and and poring over the stash of design books, maps, and travel brochures made available to guests. Sofie and another woman came in and we chatted about the flea market and antique stalls in the nearby Marolles district.

The above photograph, for those who don’t recognize Tintin, was taken in the window of a comic book shop. Comic books are big in Belgium. The Adventures of Tintin sells more than a million copies a year worldwide and is translated into more than 50 languages. Tintin is a Belgian reporter aided in his adventures by faithful dog Snowy (called Milou in the French edition.) Every year Brussels hosts a Comic Book Festival where enormous balloon characters parade down the main streets.

On my last day in this lovely city I decided to wander further afield and visit the new Magritte museum and the adjoining Musée des Beaux Arts. There was also a lamp I wanted to buy. I spotted it, late yesterday afternoon, in the window of an interior design shop. It spoke to me. I’m a bit of a lamp fetishist, I’m afraid. I don’t really need another lamp, but this one, in the form of a shell, will be perfect on my credenza.

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Heading outside, I walked the 15 minutes in a straight line to the Grand Place and veered right towards the Place Albertine. Trudging through snow and over the still ice-encrusted sidewalks (it appears that the city’s snow removal services don’t do sidewalks), I eventually reached this park: a pristine, public park designed in a neoclassicist, geometric style.  As if frozen in time, its petrified sculptures lay under a mantle of snow:

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She looks cold.


It was a pleasant experience walking through that silent, unpeopled park, the distant sounds of the city muffled by the snow. I finally reached the Magritte museum and spent the next hour wandering contentedly through its galleries, looking at and learning about the work of this Belgian surrealist artist (1898-1967):

“Rene Magritte’s work has both philosophical and poetic content which corresponds to certain social and intellectual trends, particularly of the second half of the twentieth century. His work was not easy to approach at the outset, however, and makes a constant call on us to relinquish, at least temporarily, our usual expectations of art.  Magritte never responds to our demands and expectations. He offers us something else instead.”

And then, sadly, it was time to return to Paris. I reluctantly made my way back to the B&B. I didn’t have time to visit the Musée des Beaux Arts, nor a dozen other places of interest on my list. Collecting my belongings from the B&B, I walked the short distance to the train station only to learn that the train was delayed again due to weather conditions. I bought a hot chocolate and a waffle in the food court. I think I gained a few kilos which isn’t surprising considering I subsisted primarily on chocolate, fries, waffles and beer for two days. The trip back to Paris was comfortable and relaxing. Service on that route is operated by Thalys, the high-speed train operator jointly owned by French, German and Belgian national railways. I’ll definitely return to Brussels.

So what took me so long to discover the place? I guess I was busy discovering other places. What I particularly like about this city is its eclecticism – the blend of different styles and vibes ranging from Baroque to Art Nouveau, old-world to avant-garde, rebellious to conformist, flamboyant to austere, all with an underlying quirkiness.


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The 1898 Post Hotel, Belgium


Is it possible to fall in love with a hotel (and a city) just by looking at photos?



I took one look at the photos, read the blurbs, and said, “I’m going.”


The truth is, I’ve been wanting to visit Ghent (Belgium) for awhile now. Last year I had booked a trip with the kids. We were going to stay in a hostel. But the weather was bad, so I cancelled.

And now? Forget the hostel, forget the kids … I’m going to this place.

Ghent is called “the best kept secret of Europe.” The hotel is called 1898 The Post because it was built in 1898 and it was a post office. Closed in 2001, the building now hosts a shopping centre and this hotel, right in the center of town.

Au revoir, Antwerp

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I had every intention of visiting The Royal Museum of Fine Arts to view the collection of Flemish paintings, but learned that it’s closed for renovation until the end of 2019. I then discovered another museum located in the very square where I was staying: The Plantin-Moretus Museum, a stately 16th-century townhouse that chronicles Christopher Plantin’s printing and publishing career as far back as 1555. The printing offices, workshop and library have all been preserved in their original state.

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As the daughter of a publisher who served the printing industry, I was drawn to this place, but must admit that my visit was tinged with sadness. How my now-deceased father would have loved poking around the small, dimly-lit rooms scrutinizing the artefacts and gazing thoughtfully at the collection of antique printing presses. Alone, I wandered from room to room, the old wooden floors creaking under my feet, imagining my dear father at my side. In one attic room there was a small mullioned window that overlooked the rooftops and courtyard and it struck me, as I peered out, that the view hasn’t changed since the 17th-century.

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My remaining days in Antwerp were spent exploring, getting lost, battling high winds and rain, taking refuge in shops, bookstores and cafés, listening to the guttural Dutch-Flemish language and noting how close its intonation and rhythmicality is to English (and how far from French), and generally soaking up the atmosphere of this lovely city.  In closing, here are some random photos:

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My last waffle and coffee at the train station. Bye-bye, I’ll be back!

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Antwerp, a short video

As mentioned in my previous post, I had every intention of attending Midnight Mass at the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady on December 24th, but with rain lashing at the windows and gale force winds shaking the foundation of the building that sheltered me, I chose to stay indoors in my warm and cozy nest. The next morning I awoke to brilliant sunshine and a cold blue sky. I ran outside and headed to the cathedral. Here’s a 54-second video of some residents of Antwerp flocking to church on Christmas Day morning –

Note:  Bear with me as I’m a complete neophyte when it comes to shooting video.

This video doesn’t exist


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Freshly returned from Belgium (3 days, 3 nights) and my sentiment remains the same: I really like this country. Every time I go, I have a great time. Antwerp: a compact, cosmopolitan city inhabited by friendly, low-key citizens. I do not speak a single word of Flemish (Belgian Dutch), however I did study German for a year in Grade 10 which helped me recognize some words. (Flemish is a Germanic language.) But everyone speaks English or French, so communicating with Antwerpians (??) is not a problem.

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Upon arrival at the magnificent train station (above), I picked up a city map from the information desk, walked in a straight line to the Old Town and got hopelessly lost.  I must have walked round and round the cathedral at least three times, dragging my small suitcase over the cobblestoned streets. The layout makes no sense at all in the Old Town.  It took me an hour to find the square where my rental accommodation was located.  Here’s the square below:

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Karin, the bubbly young woman who services the flats (and who resembles a young Charlotte Rampling), greeted me and showed me around the place. I had rented a small furnished flat which turned out to be super-cozy, warm and quiet. And perfectly located. Most of what you want to visit is in the Old Town. I will return to that flat on my next trip to Antwerp because it was comfortable and because there’s an ILLY espresso machine in the small kitchen. There’s also a beautiful all-marble bathroom.

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On that first day I ended up tossing the map and got lost instead. I never did get the hang of the confusing network of winding, maze-like streets. I stumbled across a recommended bistro that I was actually looking for called Chez Fred, located at number 83 Kloosterstraat. Taking refuge from a sudden downpour, I stepped inside its dim interior and enjoyed an early dinner of Belgian beef stew accompanied by a bowl of fries and washed down with a dark Leffe beer. As I ate the fries, I thought that maybe a side of mashed potatoes would have been preferable so as to soak up the delicious gravy from the stew.  Small buns and slices of dark rye bread were distributed to each diner in a little paper bag.  Observation: it seems to me that the Flemish like dimly-lit interiors. Everywhere I went (including my rental apartment) I felt that another lamp was needed. After dinner I scurried back to my lodgings, dodging raindrops, and helped myself to the DVD collection there.  I chose The Children’s Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine (1961). Stretched luxuriously across the bed in the dim, quiet bedroom, I ended my first day in Antwerp warm, fed and happy.

The next day I hit the boutiques and found this one at number 46 Steenhouwersvest:ANTWERP Dec 2013 067

Rundholz is a German label.  The saleswoman was so engaging that I ended up in the store for two hours, talking with her and trying on clothes.

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I ended up buying this coat that Anneke is modelling (below) along with a dress and a scarf, all at a 30% pre-Christmas discount.  At a nearby store I purchased a pair of ankle-length, flat boots to go with my new outfit.  This is the style that many women in Antwerp are wearing: mid-calf asymmetrical skirt, layered clothing on top, flat short boots and leather handbag resting on hip, strap worn diagonally across the chest. Stylish yet comfortable.

The clothes of Carsten and Lenka Rundholz are described as follows: unconventional cuts, whimsical details and a sculptural quality to make garments that are intelligently stylish and a pleasure to wear. For women who think for themselves and have no desire to follow set trends. If you like Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons or Miyake, you’ll love Rundholz.

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Back to the flat, which was 5 minutes away.  I passed the Gunther Watté Chocolate Café at number 30 Steenhouwersvest.

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I went inside and ordered a divine cup of hot chocolate for 3 euros 50.  You have a choice of dark, milk or white chocolate.  I chose dark.  Don’t you love these large, white porcelain cups?

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Here’s the accommodation link below. I stayed in Suite 2/2 The Cabin:

Welkom bij Aplace/Antwerp – jouw perfecte plek om Antwerpen te ontdekken!