Having only been to Belgium once before due to a BA flight mess up resulting in a detour into Brussels airport and several hours worth of trolley races, I had no clue what to expect of the city. My friend Rachel suggested that we go as a post-exam/beginning of summer city break to declare our newly found independence as soon-to-be-sixth-formers and it was her birthday. And trust me, it did not disappoint. It’s a little quieter than Paris and a lot easier to navigate too. Aside from being the home of the European Parliament, there’s enough decently priced restaurants serving authentic Belgian dishes to go round and plenty of art galleries and culture to please your Nan.
Some city facts: Brussels/Bruxelles/Brussel
- The de facto capital city of the EU
- Largest urban area in Belgium
- Comprised of 19 municipalities
- Founded 979
- Population: 1,080,790
- Population density: 6,697/km2
- Climate according to Köppen climate classification: oceanic and maritime temperate climate
We started our journey by grabbing the Eurostar from King’s Cross St. Pancras to Brussels Midi taking roughly two hours. We passed the time by watching the glorious French countryside roll by and munching on crackers and cheese. Upon arrival at Brussels Midi, we got a taxi to the Welcome hotel, booked for three nights, which has rooms themed to different countries. In our case, we were lucky to get the ‘Congo’ room which had a couple of spears hanging on the wall and some rather jazzy animal print bed covers.
The first day we spent wandering to get accustomed to the area. Near the Welcome Hotel is St. Catherine’s church (Dutch: Sint-Katelijne), a slightly ominous looking church which provided us with cooling relief from the heat of the day.
Take a stroll down any of the streets leading off the Grand place and you’ll probably be treated to a free meal by one of the eager waiters at one of the restaurants in the district trying to draw in customers. Charm is key.
Grand Place – where we spent most of our time
It’s loud, bustling and full of tourists, but it still retains Belgian charm by offering an array of restaurants with alfresco candlelit dinners. Brussels is particularly famous for its waffles and french fries (served with mayonnaise, of course). Other traditional Belgian cuisine includes moules, or mussels, served in a variety of sauces, in pots or on a platter. Lobster is also pretty popular. For drinks, Belgium has a great tradition of excellence with beer. Each Belgian beer is served in its own dedicated glass. Kwak has a particularly interesting stand for serving, resembling science apparatus!
We had plenty of ‘montage-movie moments’ wandering through the Grand Place as there are just so many street musicians to be the soundtrack to your day.
There was also a dog in some rather funky wayfarers for entertainment purposes. 😉
You’ll find plenty of shops catering to tourists in the Grand Place. There is also the nearby Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, built in 1846 and designed by Belgian architect, Jean-Paul Cluysenaer. It was inaugurated by King Leopold and his two sons in 1897 and is composed of three sections: Galerie du Roi, Galerie de la Reine and Galerie du Prince which were collectively called the Passage Saint-Hubert. It assumed its present name in 1965. Inside the arcade is the Théâtre des Galeries Saint-Hubert, again designed by Cluysenaer, which is one of the three royal theatres of Brussels.
The arcade is full of shops selling traditional Belgian lace goods, toys, cafes and, of course, chocolate.
We also visited the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula, an impressive Roman Catholic church which began construction in the 13th century and took 300 years to complete. It has architectural characteristics of the Brabantine Gothic style and has stainglass windows and confessionals from the 16th century and a pulpit from the 17th century. Official website: www.cathedralestmichel.be
We visited, of course, Manneken Pis, the famous bronze Brussels’ landmark designed by Jerome Duquesnoy around 1619. It was much smaller than I anticipated!
Day trip to Bruges
We hopped on the train from Brussels Midi, this time to Bruges. After a little struggle finding seats (which led to yet another montage-movie moment involving walking through a carriage full of people playing African drums), we found a place. My only experience of Bruges had been that of watching the black comedy film with Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges. However, it was just as beautiful as in the film (if not a little better).
Some city facts: Bruges/Brugge
- Capital and largest city of the province of West Flanders – Flemish region of Belgium
- City centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000
- Gained city charter 1128
- Population: 117, 224
- Population density: 847 inhab./km²
Bruges is referred to as ‘The Venice of the North’ and it’s no surprise as everywhere we went there were signs for boat tours. Naturally, trying to emulate the movie, we hopped on a tour. The canals were thought to have been formed by several floods from the North Sea in the 5th century B.C which left ‘sea-arms’ for ships to navigate inland from the sea to where Bruges is now. In the middle ages these arms of water were widened for trade ships to reach the city. Today, however, only boats for tourism currently use the canals. Source
De Halve Maan (Straffe Hendrik) Brewery
Something definitely not to miss out on is a visit to the Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery. It is the only active family brewery in the centre of Bruges and tours are offered at the generous price of five euros fifty (includes one complimentary Brugse zot blond beer!). The brewery was founded in 1856 and has, so far, been run by six generations. There is a garden and a restaurant offering food and, of course, beer. The tour is offered in three languages: English, French and Dutch, and it is entertaining and informative. I learnt that only beer from the Netherlands and Belgium uses purely female hop plants in brewing (which apparently is beneficial for menopausal women as it has plenty of oestrogen!). The tour ends with a great rooftop view of the whole of Bruges.
A Final Note – Belfry of Bruges and a spot of shopping
Continuing our attempt to do absolutely everything Colin Farrell did in the film, we set ourselves the monster task of climbing the Belfry of Bruges (another name is Belfort). We also ate ice cream in the Burg Square. The Belfry of Bruges is a medieval bell tower built in around 1240. In the film, the tower looks deceptively easy to climb when they’re running up it. Trust me, this is not the case. After a lot of huffing and puffing and over hearing squeamish tourists exclaiming ‘I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT’, we made it to the top. We did, however, see a woman attempt (and surprisingly complete) the 366 narrow-step climb in stilettos – achievement. To celebrate our efforts, we took a little stroll down one of the shopping streets and found a cute little shop (Javana) selling a variety of teas in lots of unusual flavours including creme brulee and amaretto : ) .
Photos: Charlotte Tidman