19 Aug 2013

A Long Weekend in Brussels - It's All About the Beer: Day 2

After our first rather early night in Brussels we had a very long lie-in too, enjoying the fact that we didn't have an 8am wake-up call from the dog. Much as I love the little chap, it's very nice to get away once in a while and not have to worry about taking him out first thing! We hadn't booked breakfast in the hotel (at €27 per person you must be kidding), so had nothing urgent to get up early for - no alarms set; bliss. The weather was a bit mixed - some patches of blue sky, but mainly cloudy and overcast. We didn't get out of the hotel until around 12.30pm and headed to Exki, a lovely Belgian chain of cafés that we'd discovered in Ghent in 2011, which serves delicious salads, quiches, pastries, coffee, etc.

Afer a quick brunch we headed up the hill to the Royal Quarter to visit the Magritte museum, past yet more defaced no-entry signs and some interesting murals/graffiti.

Rene Magritte is one of those artists that you know the name and you recognise some of his work, but you probably haven't put two-and-two together to work out which art is actually his (the man with a bowler hat and an apple in front of his face is a well-known one). He was a Belgian surrealist artist, born in 1898, and the recently-opened museum (within the Musées Royeaux des Beaux Arts) holds a fantastic, chronological collection of his work. Not all of his famous paintings are there, but there's enough to get a decent look at his life and works (and entry to the museum is currently 2-for-1 with a Eurostar ticket, so a bargain at €4 each!).

A quick trip to the gift shop left us a bit poorer, with Magritte coffee mugs and matching watches, with 12, 3, 6 and 9 marked by a man, a bird, an umbrella and a pipe, respectively, with all of the other points marked by bowler hats (cue endless amusement between the two of us for the rest of the weekend telling the time - eg "it's hat past bird" and so on).

After leaving the gallery we popped back to the hotehl to drop off our purchases and then headed up through the Parc de Bruxelles to try to find a famous beer bar - Le Bier Circus, only to find that it was closed for most of August. Some of the nearby architecture was quite impressive (it looked a bit like Paris) but there was a backdrop of seventies newbuilds and some ugly main roads nearby.

Disappointed at the bar being shut we wandered back through the museum area, past the Palais de Justice and headed across Avenue Louise and then down through the suburb of St. Gilles to find the original Moeder Lambic bar (it was already 4.30pm by this time, given our ridiculously late start). It was nice to wander through the quiet neighbourhoods, the odd art nouveau feature in sight on some houses and past some interesting characters.

We'd planned to visit the Musee Horta, but would only have a half hour visit, so decided to save for another visit. Instead, we found the bar, plonked ourselves down for a while and tried a few more Belgian beers (and some more cheese). Like their sister bar in the centre there was a constant stream of visitors, some staying for only one drink, others settled in for a while. I imagine that it would have been in all of the guide books, although being further out of town would receive fewer visitors. Good people-watching, and good beer, of course.

We'd booked a restaurant at 7pm (recommended by one of the chaps we'd met in Le Perroquet the previous day) which wasn't too far away, in the Ixelles area. Gusto was a nice-enough Italian place, although it was a bit dead, as we were so early. After a quick meal we headed back into town, just reaching the viewpoint at the Palais de Justice as the sun was setting behind the city. Couples hung out on benches, tourists lingered taking photos, people came up and down in the elevator.

We wandered back into the centre, past a skateboard park where kids threw water at each other and others just hung out. We spotted a couple of rather interesting murals high up on walls.

Eventually we found a nice-enough bar for our next beer, along the Rue du Lombard, before moving on to Le Greenwich, a grand old place which doesn't seem to have chess any more (unlike the description in my now 5-year-old guidebook). It did have some wonderful art nouveau decorations and features, though, as well as flamboyant staff. We were home by 11.15pm, feeling the effects again from the 6 or 7 delicious Belgian beers we'd tried, ready for our last day and hopefully a slightly earlier start.


15 Aug 2013

A Long Weekend in Brussels - It's All About the Beer (Day 1)

A summer weekend in Brussels finished off a little series of trips that my husband and I have been doing for the past few years. First it was the oh-so-cute Bruges, followed by the also-cute-but-a-little-less-touristy university town Ghent, then diamond-rich Antwerp, and last-but-not-least Brussels, the country's capital. I have a guide-book that covers all four cities and nowhere else - I don't think I've ever got such good value-for-money from one book!

We are rather fond of Belgian beer, which seems to end up dictating a large part of our Belgian weekends. The beer is varied, but always strong, which doesn't lend itself to early mornings, or even late nights (a few of them and sleep is not far away). As well as the beer, the easy journey on the Eurostar - taking us from St. Pancras right into Brussels in a matter of a couple of hours - has definitely also helped in our decision to keep on visiting Belgium.

We decided to walk from the station to our hotel, which was right in the centre, pausing along the way to see the Palais de Justice and stopping for a bite to eat nearby. The mighty palace was covered in scaffolding, which it has been for years, apparently - the country does have the money to complete the cleaning job but it just can't be bothered, I was told. I was interested to see whether the city still looked like a bombsite, which it did during my first visit in 2002. I hadn't liked it then, so had relatively low expectations. Fortunately things have improved dramatically - there was barely any rubble, the weather was better and I had much better company! Next to the Palais was a defaced "no entry"sign which I rather liked, and noticed a number of different varieties along the same theme during the visit.

It began to spit as we wandered down the hill from the palace to a restaurant recommended in my by now much-trusted book. We weren't disappointed as we sat in Le Perroquet and ordered the first beer of the trip, a Lamoral. The heavens opened as we ate a yummy lunch of stuffed pittas and grilled camembert, and a couple of locals sat on the adjoining table and gave us a few recommendations. Another beer was ordered given that the rain showed no sign of letting up.

The rain soon cleared and we continued on our journey into the centre, and again I was impressed with the lack of building sites! We passed the stunning church, Petit Sablon, and a couple more amusingly defaced signs.

Preparations were being made for a summer festival, which seemed to consist of a few large stages and music aimed at people half my age. We did a little detour to see the Mannekin Pis, a strange mascot for a city, the sun now shining above us. He was all dressed up (in what looked like a scout outfit) and was surrounded by tourists snapping away or just hanging about aimlessly, perhaps awaiting instructions from their flag-waving guide.

Onwards to Grand Place, where crowds swarmed to see a parade that was in full swing. I couldn't see what was going on through the throng of tourists, but held my camera above my head, as did everyone else, and could just about make out some people dressed in red marching up and down.

We didn't hang around but headed through the picturesque Galerie du Roi to our beautiful hotel (the Dominican).

After check-in we set off towards Tour & Taxi, a redeveloped train station towards the north-west of the city, on the other side of the canal (there is a canal in Brussels, it's just not very pretty); I thought it might hold some photographic opportunities. The building itself was impressive, and looked more like an old prison, but inside was completely dead. It looked as if it needed another few years before it got any kind of buzz. There were no grungy, atmospheric dockside warehouses to photograph.

We walked back into the centre, passing through a canal-side area with stalls and bars - mainly selling caipirinhas and mojitos. The choice of beer was limited to Heineken and Desperado, so we didn't linger.

After meandering back via the St. Catherine area and Grand Place, which was now illuminated in the early evening sun, we settled ourselves down to another couple of beers at the À La Mort Subite, a beautiful bar around the corner from the hotel.

From there we went to another famous beer establishment, the Moeder Lambic Fontainas bar, where more strong beers were quaffed, a cheese and meat platter consumed, and a smitten couple was photographed!

We stayed there a couple of hours until the desire for some frites avec mayonnaise overcame us. We found a fantastic frites van - De Corte - and our desires were fulfilled. Our hotel was just around the corner from the famous Delirium Bar so we decided to go there for one last beer, but it was absolutely packed full of hammered teenagers and stag parties (it wasn't that bad, but it was very busy and very loud), so found a quieter bar opposite where we had a disappointing, far-too-sweet apple-flavoured lambic beer. Not feeling quite satisfied, we then stopped in the Mort Subite bar for a quick Westmalle Trippel, which then led us to our bed by a remarkably early 10:30pm.