Part 1: Boys who pee and fruity blonds…
The Eurostar “almost” makes the Continent seem like a hop, skip and a jump away from home. I say “almost” because for us Brummies a two hour train journey and two tube rides precede our final triumphant checking in to St Pancras International. We settle in listening to the sounds of champagne corks popping and gourmet picnics being consumed by our fellow passengers – it’s almost a party atmosphere. Every short tunnel we pass through, I insist on waving an imaginary French flag and singing Frères Jacques. Even when we are only 5 minutes outside of London. Eventually however, after picking up a few final passengers at Ebbsfleet, we are on our way, and 31 miles later we emerge blinking into the French sunlight. Like an excited small child, I insist on pointing out everything we pass to a bemused Mr Fletche (“Look, a French horse! Look, a French tree! Look, a French pigeon!” etc. etc. til Mr Fletche threatens me with French violence).
Gare du Midi is comfortingly familiar from our last visit in November 2011, when we passed through on our way to Bruges. This time we are facing our first battle with the Brussels public transport system. Brussels public transport system almost wins when we can’t work out how to adjust the language options on the ticket machine. We are not defeated and a knight in shining armour shows us how to adjust using the click wheel. Mr Fletche feeds 10 and 20 cent coins into the machine – leftovers from our last European trip – until the required amount for two single journeys has been paid.
**Useful Tip No 1** Once you’ve figured out how to select your language using the ticket machines are easy-peasy.
Our first Brussels tram experience is swift as we disembark two stations later at Anneessens. We get our bearings and stroll confidently down Anspach (before turning round and strolling confidently in the right direction). Just a couple of minutes later and we’re standing outside the Bedford Hotel. There’s lots of garbage bags around and it looks a little shabby. We soon realise that we have entered through the “back door”. The hotel is not shabby at all and we are greeted effusively and immediately checked into our room on the fourth floor. With not a moment to waste, we quickly unpack, check out our view (a wall and a parking garage – oh well) and decide where our first port of call will be. We are in Belgium, so obviously this will involve beer. And as we’re in strolling distance of the little boy peeing in the fountain, that is where we head.
It is not difficult to know when we have reached our destination. Hordes of crowds jostle for position with their camera phones and selfie sticks on a small corner of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chene. The object of attention? Mannekin Pis – a 61cm tall bronze statue of a boy peeing into a fountain. Today he is wearing a school uniform, one of his 800 outfits – making him better dressed than most of us. For the rest of our trip, Mannekin Pis will be naked, as God (or his sculptor) intended. This famous but very tiny attraction means that almost all of the souvenirs available in the numerous “gift” shops are adorned with a small boy with his willy in his hand.
With one item ticked off the must-see list, it’s time for the next. Beer. Poechenellekelder is on the “Bars to Visit” list. It also appears to be on everyone else’s “Bars to Visit” list so we troop back down the stairs, having only time for a cursory glance at the puppets and dolls hanging from the walls and ceiling. We will come back on Monday we state confidently.
**Useful Tip No 2** Poechenellekelder is closed on Mondays
Poechenellekelder’s loss was Taverne Mannekin Pis’ gain. With only one table vacant in this tiny bar, we grab it and peruse the menu. Yes, Brussels has menus for its beer, listing the type, the brewery, the cost and (most importantly) the strength. I’ve done a little research before this trip, and I know I want a “fruity” beer. Or a “blond” beer. What I don’t want, but what I inadvertently ask for, is a “fruity blond”. The bemused (or confused) barmaid informs me that a “fruity blond” does not exist. I have made a beer faux pas. I commit to the fruity part and have my first Lindemans Framboise (a “fruity” raspberry number, more redhead than blond…). Mr Fletche partakes of a beer that neither of us can remember.
Tummy rumbles remind us that we’ve eaten nothing since our O’Neill’s breakfast back in London, so we decide to head towards Grand Place and decide where to eat then. We fight our way past the crowds still thronged around Mannekin Pis, and head down Rue de l’Etuve past the numerous beer shops, chocolate shops, souvenir shops and waffle shops. As we approach the main square, this is where I have my first real surprise, and realise that my original imaginings of dull, grey architecture could not be further from the truth. Bathed in a warm glow of late afternoon sunshine, Grand-Place is stunning. Hôtel de Ville, Maison du Roi and the surrounding buildings make Grand-Place worthy of its constant top spot in lists of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The cameras come out (my little point and click versus Mr Fletche’s DSLR) but we can’t capture that first view that takes your breath away as sunlight glints on the golden façades.
We remember why we’ve come this way when we spot T’Kelderke nestled under the buildings on our right-hand side. Mentioned in our little Brussels tour guide, and recommended by reviewers on our good friend TripAdvisor, we descend the steps into this underground restaurant. We’re lucky, there are a number of tables available, but we beat the rush as within 10 minutes of being seated there’s not a seat spare in the house. We have a good go at translating the menu before the waiter very kindly offers us one in English. Who knows what we may have ordered otherwise? When I see calf’s head on the menu I almost wished I hadn’t seen the English version…
I stick to traditional Flemish fare and have the carbonnade flamande with stoemp (in basic terms, beef and ale stew with mash and veg). Mr Fletche has waterzooi – chicken stew. It’s surprisingly untouristy for a restaurant in such a prime spot, and the prices are pretty decent too. We wash down our food with a Maes Pils, but decline dessert – why pay 7€ for a waffle in the city of 1€ waffle stores? We walk off our food, continuing beyond Grand-Place, and have a mooch at the Easter displays in the designer chocolate shops of Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.
We head back towards Mannekin Pis, and queue up to select our waffle of choice from one of the many 1€ waffle stores
**Useful Tip No 3** 1€ will get you a waffle. No whipped cream, no bananas, no strawberries, no Nutella. Just a waffle. Additional €s are required for the fully loaded waffle experience
Waffles are immediately declared to be the messiest food to eat, overtaking ribs and corn of the cob (seriously, does no-one else ever squirt themselves in the eye when eating corn on the cob?). The two plastic forks provided are completely ineffective, and the cream and chocolate syrup create a paste that sticks the waffle to the bottom of its cardboard container.
Eventually we have devoured our waffles, our sugar levels have increased ten-fold, and we think that we may need a short lie-down. Luckily we are only a short walk away from our hotel, so we return to recharge our batteries. A short lie-down turns into a long lie-down but we can’t spend Saturday night in Brussels snoozing (as tempting as it is). So quick freshen up and a change of clothes and we head out “locally” for a drink. In Brussels, everything is pretty local.
A 10 minute walk and we arrive at one of the intriguing little dimly lit alleyways which lead to even more intriguing dimly lit little bars. This one is A La Bécasse. We are greeted by a waiter wearing an old-fashioned apron which looks as if he is about to slaughter small animals in the back yard. We choose not to have a huge ceramic crockpot of beer (unlike our neighbor) – I stick to a blond (not a fruity one this time – I’ve learned that lesson well…) and Mr Fletche has his first Chimay (but not his last). In fact we’re both so struck by the Chimay that it’s Chimay’s all-round for the second round. The food, the travelling and the Belgian beer is already taking its toll, so we bid “merci, au revoir” to our traditionally-garbed friend and call it a nuit.