Part 2: A Tale of Two Cities
The black-out curtains do a grand job, and I open one eye to glance at my watch, surprised to see its morning already. It’s Easter Sunday! And it’s Mr Fletche’s birthday!
We head to the first floor for breakfast – we’ve barely seen a soul at the hotel since our arrival; now it’s a heaving mass of people brandishing croissants. Over a slice of ham and a bowl of fruit cocktail we discuss our day’s plans. Unlike previous city breaks, which have been planned down to each minute, we’re a little more relaxed this time around (i.e. I didn’t have chance to make an hour-by-hour itinerary due to work, study and social commitments – although I did manage to plot plenty of bars and restaurants onto a city map…) but Mr Fletche has done a little bit of research of his own and opts for a daytrip to Ghent/Gent for his anniversaire excursion.
It’s sunny but a little chilly, so we wrap up accordingly (sunglasses, hat, gloves, scarf…) and retrace yesterday’s steps (sans suitcases) to Anneessens. This time we purchase a 5 trip JUMP ticket each – we are now Brussels public transport experts.
Back at Gare du Midi, we purchase our two second class returns to Gent St Pieters. A little bit of running up and down various platforms and we find the next train heading in that direction. There’s a slower train with multiple stops on the platform we are on, or there’s one direct to Gent a couple of platforms down. We head for the direct train – it’s Easter Sunday, it’ll be dead quiet… Wrong. We spend the half hour journey jammed against the toilet door, with Brussels locals and tourists alike fleeing the capital on this sunny Easter Sunday morning. Not the most fun train journey we’ve ever experienced.
At Gent St Pieters, we are spat out of the carriage as the ongoing passengers jostle for more elbow room in the crammed corridor. “Now we get a tram” Mr Fletche announces. “Where from?” I ask. “Don’t know” Mr Fletche responds. “Where to?” “Don’t know”.
I curse our lack of meticulous planning but we follow the crowds, find a ticket machine, feed in some more coins and jump on the No 1 Tram handily waiting outside headed for Centrum. Not being entirely sure where we disembark, we jump off at the first signs of a “tourist hub”. It’s more of a local’s Sunday market, but a short walk brings us to a T-Junction at Limburgstraat – we look right and we see St Nicholas’ Church, St Bavo’s Cathedral (covered in scaffolding) and the Belfort – all beautiful, but where is the canal? All those picture postcard scenes we saw on the tourist information leaflets? If only we’d looked left at that T-junction…
After popping into the cathedral (Easter Mass was taking place; tourists were allowed in but respectfully asked to remain silent at the back) we strolled around the back streets of Gent, before stumbling upon the flea market at Sint-Jacobs Square. We wait for the midday bells to finally stop chiming before partaking in our first beer of the day in a little bar in the shadow of Sint-Jacobskerk. It’s one of those tiny places that piles its tables onto the cobbled streets at first sign of sunshine – much to the chagrin of the market van drivers who have to manoeuvre very carefully for fear of knocking out a casual lunchtime drinker with a wing mirror. A pretty square, a toilet stop and a couple more back streets later and we finally come across a canal! Suddenly it is starting to look like those postcards – and Gent, like Brussels itself, is starting to surprise me more and more around every corner.
With an evening reservation at Le Marmiton for Mr Fletche’s birthday, we decide to eat light at lunchtime today. What does one eat for a light lunch in Belgium? FRITES! A group of people dipping into cones alert us to a nearby friterie and we join the queue just before it starts to snake out the door. Not being a fan of mayo, I elect for a large dollop of ketchup. Frites with ketchup becomes ketchup with frites. Nevertheless we enjoy our ketchupy frites sitting by the canal, watching the world go by.
What else does Gent have to offer? Well, it has a 12th century castle – the Gravensteen. It has lots of bicycles (most seem to be parked outside St Pieter’s station). And it has “that” picture postcard view which we finally found – the picturesque guildhouses (most now housing bars and restaurants with terraces for outside dining and drinking) flanking the Leie river, the square tower of Sint-Michielskerk stretching into the sky, lots of people milling around enjoying their Easter Sunday.
We have a last mooch around, and debate whether Gent or Bruges is the prettiest… Bruges still edges it slightly for me but on a sunny day I can’t think of many places that would be better than Graslei and Korenlei to while away the hours with an ice cream and/or a beer in hand. And I bet it’s stunning at night. However, we don’t have the time to hang around for the light show – we tuck Gent away on our “to be revisited” list and make our way via Tram No 1 back to Gent St Pieter’s.
With a train back to Brussels leaving in just a couple of minutes, we locate the platform and throw ourselves onto the waiting train. Unlike our earlier journey this train appears to be almost empty, and we settle down for the return journey in surprisingly comfy seats. We are about 10 minutes outside of Gent when the ticket inspector informs us politely that we are in fact in the First Class carriage, and would we mind moving our derrières to the second class carriage with the rest of the rabble. We have to do the walk of shame through the second class carriages to find (slightly less comfortable) seats; we may as well be wearing signs that say “Kicked out of First Class”. We are heartened slightly when two minutes after us, another couple are forced to also do the walk of shame – we tut along with the rest of our fellow passengers at the nerve of these people – sitting in First Class, on a Second Class ticket? How dare they?!
We disembark at Brussels Central this time around, and approach Grand-Place from the opposite direction. Time for another drink maybe? After wandering aimlessly for a little while, we find what we are looking for – the famous Delirium Café (after popping our head into a very quiet and unrowdy brasserie trying to trade on the Delirium name). I’m guessing we didn’t see the best of Delirium, as instead of the purported 2400+ beers on offer we were faced with a laminate with about 20 beers – less than in some of the other places we tried – what did we miss? What we didn’t miss was the very very drunk group of men who decided to block the entrance by doing their version of “Oops Upside Your Head” whilst their friends crowd surfed over their heads. This amused us enough to remain for two beers apiece, however we decided to leave before any blood was shed (a distinct possibility based on the number of men head-butting the wooden tables/floors as their “friends” failed to give them a gentle landing). Was glad that for once these drunken offenders weren’t English… beer louts exist the world over! Merci Delirium… it was an experience!
We head back to the hotel before the after effects of two 8% beers in quick succession (does that make one 16% beer?) hit us, and snoozily watch Easter Sunday TV on the BBC (yes, the Bedford Hotel has a full range of BBC channels; a little bit of home here in Belgium). We have dinner reservations at 8pm, so at about 7:15 I decide it’s probably time to put Hi-de-Hi and the Two Ronnies aside and get ready.
Usually I would research possible potential eateries and just risk turning up and requesting a table, but as it was hubby’s birthday and a Sunday (Easter Sunday at that) I wanted to make sure we had something booked. As it turns out, there would have been plenty of places to eat on Rue des Bouchers and its offshoot alleyways, pavements lined with tables and inexpensive set menus aplenty; however Le Marmiton (located within Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert) was an excellent choice, and with plenty of hopeful customers being turned away, a reservation was a good plan. The food was good quality but reasonably priced – I had the Mussels Marinière, Mr Fletche had the duck – the service was efficient and polite (who doesn’t love a waiter who helps you into your coat at the end of the night?) and the elegant ambience made the experience seem far more extravagant than the bill suggested.
For a post-meal beverage, we decided to head towards Toone – another little hidden alleyway bar from my list – to check out its quirky combination of pub/puppet theatre, however early Sunday closing appeared to be in full force and we were ushered out as quickly as we were ushered in. Fine – who wants puppets watching you as you drink anyway? Much more accommodating was Au Bon Vieux Temps (yes, down another alleyway…this is where all the hidden gems are!). Stunning interior with ornate wood panelling, grand fireplace and beautiful stained glass, I was a big fan of this place – who can resist a bar where the English translation of the name is “The Good Old Times”? Mr Fletche had an Orval – a change from his new favourite, the Chimay – and I settled for another Framboise.
**Useful Tip No 4** Au Bon Vieux Temps sells what has been twice named as the best beer – and also the most elusive – in the world; the Westvleteren 12. Beer nerds travel far and wide to sample this 12% brew. We didn’t.
Our day in Brussels and Gent has tired us out so we retire back to our hotel to get ready for another day exploring tomorrow…