Part 3: A Load of Old Balls
Compared to yesterday’s blue sky and little fluffy clouds, Easter Monday dawns a little grey and cloudy. BBC Breakfast News tells us how warm and sunny it is back home in the UK. Pah – they’re not off to see a load of old balls today though are they? We arrive in the breakfast room at what is clearly peak breakfast time and are seated in “overspill” dining. The Bedford Hotel catering staff seem to have a limited idea of stock control, waiting until foodstuffs have completely disappeared and there is a queue forming in front of the empty scrambled egg receptacle before replenishing. Still, ham, cheese and a Danish pastry fill the gap and we are ready to face the day.
We are using the tram system today to get to our destination, and we are like seasoned pros now as we jump on the tram at Anneessens, connect to another tram at Araucaria and arrive at Heysel just after 11am. For a load of old balls, the Atomium, created for the World Fair in 1958, is quite impressive. As is the queue. We assess and decide it just falls within our patience limits so we join the end. Sometimes it moves fast – these are the people, like us, that get to the front, pay their money (adult tickets are 11€) and get their ticket. Sometimes the queue moves slow (or not at all) – these are the people who get to the front and seem surprised that they are there at all (“Oh, now we have to pay? What for? Where can we go? And what’s free? Can we get a discount? How about if we pay cash?).
Is the Atomium worth the wait? Probably not. The panoramic view from the top sphere offers great views (and probably even better on a clearer day) but the problem is that there isn’t enough to spot from the top. Grand-Place is in that general direction, the Basillica of the Sacred Heart at Koekelberg in another, Heysel and “Mini-Europe” too – but five minutes at the top and you’re pretty much done. The exhibitions were mildly interesting (if you have a penchant for orange plastic furniture) but all in all, the Atomium is better to look at from the outside than from within. The “disco” escalator was quite cool though…
We’re starting to get bit hungry so we head over to Bruparck, just a stone’s throw from the Atomium, wondering how far we can get in this entertainment complex without having to pay an admission fee. The good news is that “The Village” – a collection of cafes, restaurants and take-aways to suit all tastes and budgets – is completely admission free. We’re almost spoilt for choice! After checking out the options we settle for the first one we saw, a brasserie called Brussels’Air (or something similar). Downstairs is small and intimate (and would be quite cosy had I not been seated right in front of the “other” front door); upstairs is large and almost canteen-like (many people are seated up there and never come down…). The menu is not in English, but there are handy pictures displayed on the menu as a guide. I have marinated chicken skewers, and Mr Fletche has his first carbonnade flamande. A glass of Duvel washes our fare down nicely and sets us up for our journey back to the city.
This time we take the tram to Montgomery, and then change onto the Metro to Schuman. We emerge next to the European Commission HQ, and realise we’ve come a stop too far for our intended destination, Jubilee Park (parc du Cinquantenaire). We head up Rue de la Loi, past all the glass, bureaucratic buildings that I imagined to symbolise Brussels, to the sprawling urban park. The magnificent triumphal arch (second tallest and widest in the world, fact fans, after the Arc de Triomphe) provides a gateway between the park and the surrounding area and two sprawling wings adjoining the arch house a number of Brussels’ museums. On a sunny day (like yesterday), I can imagine the park being full of families enjoying ball games and picnics; today however there are just a few people milling around, the fountain is dry and a stage set up for some Easter event is being dismantled.
**Useful Tip No 5** Check opening times if planning on heading to any of the museums, as most are closed on Mondays. The Royal Museums of Art and History and the Royal Museums of the Army and Military History are both closed on Mondays; Autoworld however does appear to be open 7 days a week.
Starting to feel a little weary now from a day of queuing, figuring out tram/metro lines and walking, we head for Merode station and get the metro back to Brussels Central once more. We avoid the inviting bars in favour of heading back to the hotel for a rest before our final night in Brussels.
Fully refreshed (almost), we decide to head to another recommended bar – this time one almost on our doorstep – Moeder Lambic at Fontainsplein. Simple wooden booths set up along each wall, this is a haven for both tourists and locals, and the décor is simplistic but effective. I partake of a very pleasant Val Dieu, whilst Mr Fletche opts for the Adalandus Dubbel. Our drinks are served with some sort of complementary seeds, which whilst quite moreish are not very filling. Our fellow drinkers are all tucking into platters of bread and cheese which looked quite tasty but we decide to move on and find our fromage elsewhere for fear of not moving from this fab spot all night. This is my second favourite bar after Au Bon Vieux Temps.
**Useful Tip No 6** Do not attempt to lift the bar stools/chairs at Moeder Lambic unless you are in training for some sort of weight lifting competition. Or very drunk.
We only have one night left, and there are so many bars we haven’t explored yet. The decision is made; we will be back to Brussels soon to finish the job. We wander up towards La Bourse (what a beautiful building!) and then head west towards St Catherine’s. We know we’ve arrived when the number of seafood restaurants increase exponentially. We stroll up the boulevard to the fountain and back again. Some of the restaurants look enticing but after a heavy lunch we decide not to indulge. Instead we head to Monk. The menu is entirely in Flemish but by the power of mime and over-enunciation Mr Fletche managed to make our requirements clear (“HAM?” “AND CHEESE?”). Bizarrely, there is a buffet area at the rear which appears to sell nothing but spaghetti. Quite a relaxed, cool vibe; I can imagine this place would be rammed on the nights that they host live music.
Ham and cheese was just our starter. Fritland will serve our main course. This time Mr Fletche opts for his frites sans sauce which confuses the server no end (“But our sauces are good!”). I opt once more for the large dollop of ketchup. I like a country where chips are one of your five a day (along with beer, mussels, waffles and chocolate).
Grand-Place is much quieter tonight; the long weekend is over and restaurants and bars are packing up their tables and closing their doors. The 1€ waffle shops are still doing a roaring trade though, and there are still a few last stragglers getting their pictures with the peeing boy. This is when we discover that Poechenellekelder is closed on Mondays (see Useful Tip No 2). Our old favourite Taverne Mannekin Pis is still open though, and confident they won’t recognise me from the “fruity blond” faux pas, we head in for a final beer of the night. We have one morning left, which we need to schedule around hotel check-out and train times…
Au Revoir Brussels
The blue sky and little fluffy clouds are back. It’s a day to spend drinking beer on a Brussels terrace, being gently caressed by the sunshine. However for the Fletches this is not to be. Still, we don’t have to catch our train until mid-afternoon, so we decide how to best use our final morning over a slightly better stocked breakfast. A last re-tread over familiar ground… our little friend Mannekin Pis, Grand-Place (via one of the many beer/chocolate one-stop gift shops for essentials) and to St Catherine’s to see the church and the square in its daytime glory. We walk back through St Geary, and point out more bars from the list that we never got the opportunity to sample. Maybe we’ve been lightweights this time around, but when your beers are generally around the 8% mark it’s difficult to indulge too much without falling over and/or vomiting on your shoes.
We return to the hotel for the penultimate time to check out of our viewless room. They very kindly pop our cases into storage for us as we head out once more. This time we head up Rue de Alexiens (literally up; this is the only hill in Brussels…) onto the wonderfully named Rue de Rollebeek towards Place du Grand Sablon. The lunchtime sunshine and inviting nature of the pavement tables at Café Leffe lure us in, and we’re soon enjoying a final beer – a Leffe for me and a Kwak for Mr Fletche in its wonderful test-tube glass and wooden holder. Except the final beer turns into another final beer when we decide we may as well have lunch here too. I finish as I started, with a wonderfully rich carbonnade flamande (yes, soaked in even more Leffe…). Mr Fletche has the Flemish equivalent of bangers and mash. We are making the most of our last meal – we can sleep off the food and the beer on the train.
We have a last walk and once again discover new areas of the city that need to be explored further. We stumbled upon Place Royale with Saint Jacque-sur-Coudenberg church dominating the skyline, the Musical Instruments Museum (definitely one for a rainy day) and the floral carpet of Jardin du Monts des Arts. Why are you doing this to us now Brussels? Why do you continue to reveal your glories like a Victorian madame coquettishly revealing an ankle… We have to get the 16:56 Eurostar back to London!
Although I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming, Brussels wasn’t top of my “cities to visit” list. It wouldn’t have even made the top ten. Yet now, after only 2 and a half days, it is now vying for top spot along with the old favourite Prague. Je suis désolé Paris. Het spijt me Amsterdam. I now officially “heart” Brussels.