Off to Brussels

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Paris Gare du Nord train station

Paris Gare du Nord train station

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 outside.  A taxi drove me 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 Dutchwoman named Sofie who, thankfully, 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. Light-hued wooden floorboards stretched into the equally spacious ensuite bathroom. The Sweet Brussels is design-based. Design features, fixtures, and books on Art Nouveau and other artistic styles are everywhere.

Sofie and I chatted until I realized that it was 7 pm and I was starving.  I wanted only two things: a Belgian beer and a good meal.  My hostess recommended just such a place up the road.  I changed my shoes and within 5 minutes was outside again.

The thing about arriving at an unfamiliar address in the dark is you don’t know where the heck you are.  Although the B&B was decidedly hip, it seemed that the neighbourhood was not.  Even in the dark I could see that it wasn’t exactly swank.  Like all districts around train stations, it was kind of gritty. To be fair, I learned the next day that it borders the edgy, revitalized district of Marolles and is also within walking distance of both the Brussels Midi train station and the heart of the historic city center.  (Brussels has three train stations.)  Slipping and sliding on the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I cautiously 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 exactly 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 which, I suppose, is as silly as saying that you want some cheese in France.  “What kind?” he asked, “Belgium brews over 300 different varieties.”  In France I occasionally enjoy a dark ale called Pelforth and told him so.  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.  And if I’m not mistaken, the two official languages in Brussels are French and English.

The next thing to sample was fries because this is another Belgian specialty.  Belgian fries are a national institution. Generously-cut from a potato called bintje, deep-fried in fat (not oil), cooled and fried again, they’re then served hot, salted, and with ketchup or mayonnaise.  To die for.  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…kinda like home….with a friendly, laid-back vibe.  Paris is a lot of things, I mused, but cozy isn’t one of them.  And “laid-back” isn’t exactly a word I’d use to describe the Parisians either.  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 a 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, I learned, and the brand name is Jura.  If you must know, I’m a coffee aficionado hence my interest in all things java (or, to be more specific, arabica.)  At home I have a capsule-based Nespresso machine, so was interested to see that the Jura uses fresh coffee beans that are placed in a reservoir and ground for each cup.  It looked expensive.  And it made a divinely creamy cappuccino at the press of a button.

Passage obligé for the tourist visiting Brussels is the Grand Place.  Ringed with splendiferous gabled, gilded 17th and 18th century buildings, this has got to be the most stunning square in Europe.  I learned that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so I guess it’s 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 – which makes it so resplendent:

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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; this is why I prefer to travel in the off-season.  I hate crowds.

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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 browsing in every lovely shop, buying and sampling chocolates (again), taking photos, and stopping for lunch in a tea room:

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Also inside the gallery (and at other locations) is a marvellous chocolate shop called Mary, preferred chocolate supplier to Belgian’s Royal Family.

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Back outside again, I passed a second-hand clothing shop and bought some shearling-lined mittens for 20 euros. I know I keep harping on about the cold, but not only was I afraid my camera would seize up, my fingers were frozen stiff.  In another shop I purchased a toasty-warm, 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:

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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.