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A Taste of Brussels for the Irish Independent

Monday, 9 July 2012

I just realised my article on Brussels hasn't popped up on the Indo website yet. So here it is, for your viewing pleasure. It's a bit long for a blog, but if you need a long read that will kill time in the office, I have your back!



When I think of Belgium, three words instantly spring to mind; beer, chocolate and frites. Within an hour of arriving into the centre of Brussels, I had devoured all three. Hitting the streets with hungry eyes, I made my way to Place Ste. Catherine, with every intention of finding a cosy little Belgian restaurant and eating a proper meal.



I was waylaid when I came across my first friterie. These Belgian institutions are scattered throughout the city, serving golden frites slathered with various sauces, piled high in paper cones.



Mine came from Friterie De Corte, and I sat by the waterside of Ste Catherine in the fading light to demolish them. Elegant they are not, but there’s no denying they hit the spot.



It seems that every street in Brussels has a chocolate shop, from the chains of Godiva to the picture perfect independent stores. For a taste of the best, I had a sample box from Pierre Marcoloni (www.marcolini.be). Considered to be one of the finest chocolatiers in Belgium, my assortment included the traditional pralines and caramels as well as more unusual ganaches, infused with earl grey and spices.



For a taste of history, make a pilgrimage to Neuhaus (www.neuhaus.be) There are many spread throughout the city, but one of the prettiest is the original, located in the Galerie de la Reine. Originally built as a gallery, it now houses upmarket shops and cafés, with each unit surrounded by art deco stained glass.




In 1912, the world’s first praline was created by Jean Neuhaus junior, grandson of the founder (who opened the shop originally as a pharmacy, selling bitter chocolate bars as a medical remedy).



It was difficult to contain my giddy excitement as I ambled through the streets of Brussels, swinging a beautifully wrapped gift bag of chocolates in my hand. But there was still one Belgian delight to tick off my list.



A La Mort Subite is a bar that epitomises Belgian drinking. With a traditional façade and long tables filled with patrons, the interior hasn’t changed since its inception in 1928. A variety of Gueuze beers are served, including the namesake blend Mort Subite, a Lambic white beer with a story behind it.



In 1910, publican Theophile Vossen ran a bar close to the National Bank of Belgium. Every lunchtime, his bar was full of bankers, who spent their free hour playing a dice game. At 12.55pm, a warning bell signaled the end of their break, and the last game was played. This was dubbed the ‘Mort Subite’, or sudden death. When Vossen moved his bar around the corner, the name stuck.



After hearing this story and learning of the legend of the brew, my expectations were high. But while the bar itself is a great spot to while away an evening, the beer it is named after falls flat. Stick to a Maes Pils or a Grimbergen.



After an evening of somewhat slovenly indulgence, I spent the next morning repenting. Brussels is a surprisingly large city, but one which is easy to explore on foot. What’s not so easy is navigating the streets, what with the combination of Flemish and French road signs (and the disparities between said signs and hotel maps).



But getting lost is a pleasure when you discover little waffle shops, randomly placed sculptures and the infamous painted walls, which are dotted through the city in honour of the much adored comic strip.




These sky high paintings appear in random locations, featuring cartoon characters and speech bubbles, political messages and romantic portraiture. In combination with preserved shop signs from the Brussels of yore, and the elaborate architecture of the grand squares, there’s plenty to be seen as you make your way through the city.



All roads seem to lead to the Grand Place (especially when you’re walking in circles). Home to the imposing town hall and ornate Maison du Roi, the square is often filled with tourists. Visit early in the day and take in the architecture without the thronging mass of photographers. Without a crowd around you, it’s easier to spot the detailed sculptures surrounding the town hall – look out for the drinking monks, loose women and men shoveling chairs.



Stand in front of the heavily ornate wooden doors, and you’ll notice that the entrance is slightly off center. Legend has it that when the architect spotted this oversight, he climbed to the top of the spire and leapt to his death.



As well as an impressive array of architecture, Brussels is home to a great number of museums. From the large galleries in Monts des Arts to the more obscure (there are museums dedicated to both comic strips and chocolate), there will mostly likely be something for you.



The Monts des Arts area contains a plethora of artistic institutions within a tiny radius. The Magritte Museum, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts and the Brussels Concert Hall are all within steps of each other. A well groomed park gently slopes up to the collection of museums, providing a stunning view of the city below.



The Magritte Museum is staggered over three floors, with an impressive collection of work from the Surrealist artist. From scrawled notes on scraps of paper to large scale paintings, the museum is a daunting ode to surrealism, and one which is popular with the crowds.



A quieter choice is the Museum of Costume and Lace. Inside you’ll find a dizzying array of clothing from the 18th century, with spectacular dresses, elaborate waistcoats and intricate lace all on display. When you reach the top floor, you can see these fashions come to life on film, with clips from period movies such as Amadeus, The Madness of King George and Barry Lyndon.



The museum is a great place to start a fashionable trail of the city. Visit Brussels (www.visitbrussels.be) have developed a series of popular guided walks which you can follow. There’s a Tintin tour, an Art Nouveau walk and a route that shows you the best comic strip art across the city.



The fashion walk leads you through the lesser known shopping streets. There are numerous vintage offerings on Rue des Chartreux – try Gabriele (www.gabrielevintage.com) for unique costume jewellery and outlandish dresses.



There are plenty of other great finds on the same street. Stop for a cup of Marriage Frères and a dainty pastry at the minuscule tea shop AM Sweet, before heading on to the upmarket boutiques of Antoine. If you’re peckish at the finish line, backtrack a little to Place du Vieux Marché aux Grains for some Belgian gastronomy.



My first instinct may have been to seek out chocolate and frites, but I owed it to the thriving restaurant scene in Brussels to aim a little higher. Belga Queen (www.belgaqueen.be) is a gastronomic tardis, a short walk from the Grand Place. The waiters are dauntingly beautiful, the setting is chic and the food is astounding.



Towering platters of lobster and oysters are brought to the tables and the finest wines flow freely. The menu is the size of a novella, with a wide selection of seafood, meat and game. Dishes combine unusual ingredients and flavours, with truffle juice, celeriac and prunes lifting the humble pigeon to another level. Irish eyes widened when we spotted cuckoo on the menu, but rest assured this is a breed of Belgian chicken, not the much loved (and endangered) songbird.



Pretty young things who want to see and be seen head down to the club downstairs after their meal, fuelled by potent cocktails and Havana cigars. But after my feast I felt neither pretty nor young, and I most certainly didn’t wish to be seen. So I took to the streets once more, to walk off yet another Belgian blowout. My virtue faltered only when I spotted a waffle shop.



I reasoned that it would be rude to ignore the last of the Belgian foods calling my name. With that logic in mind, I tucked into a chocolate smothered waffle and settled in to my Belgian ritual – aimless wandering with a full and happy belly.





Getting There

Aer Lingus fly to Brussels three times a day from Dublin. A new service has launched from Cork, with three flights a week.

Visit Flanders (www.visitflanders.co.uk) have plenty of information online about Brussels and the surrounding towns.



Staying There



Le Plaza is the epitome of old school grandeur. Well placed for the Grand Place and Ste. Catherine, the service is impeccable and the rooms are sumptuous. Rooms from €120.  +32 2 278 01 00.



For a budget option just across the road, try Max Hotel. Though basic and a little garish, the money you save on accommodation will be put to good use in the chocolatiers. Rooms from €63.  (www.maxhotel.be) +32 2 219 00 60.



Vintage Hotel is a boutique bolthole near Avenue Louise, home to designer shops and world class restaurants. Rooms are funky and unique, designed to fit in with the vintage ethos. Rooms from €90 with breakfast. (www.vintagehotel.be) +32 2 533 99 80.

 

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