It was 5am on a Saturday morning and I was standing at a south London bus stop. I wasn’t on my way home though – I was headed to St Pancras International for a whistlestop, somewhat bittersweet tour of my old home and one of my favourite cities in the world: Brussels.
The Eurostar, for train enthusiasts such as myself, is a real treat. You get all the excitement of travelling to a foreign land mass, with little of the hassle. The carriages may be on the shabby side these days, but there’s something oldy worldy about it that makes air travel seem uncivilised and modern train travel seem clinical and joyless.
It took me ten minutes or so from pulling into the Gare du Midi to slip back in to my Brussels self. It felt as though I was revising a subject I’d once known thoroughly, or wriggling into a favourite dress I hadn’t worn for a while – relaxing into its shape, remembering how happy and comfortable and confident I am when it’s stretched around my bones.
After a few false starts, my memory kicked in and before I knew it I was feeling way my around the city by instinct once more. Fortunately my first run on the metro was a metaphorical nursery slope; I retraced the familiar journey from the station to my old residence in the north of the city, where my friend just happens to be living at the moment.
Just south of crime-ridden Schaarbeek and just east of the red light district around the Gare du Nord, Rue Traversiere is just close enough to the centre of the city to be a safe enough address to live at, and just close enough to the ghetto to be a dicey walk home after dark.
I alighted at Botanique and was immediately reminded of this bizarre art installation I used to walk past every day. Un peu freaky, non?
This was the first time I’d been back to Brussels since I left, nearly two years ago, and the first time my brother had visited the city, so of course I was determined to show him exactly why I loved it so much. It was also our friend’s first week living out there, and my only chance to share with him all the little discoveries I’d had to make myself over the course of six months.
We were all ravenous, so our first stop was the waffle van outside the Magritte Museum, followed by hot chocolates and truffles in the Wittamer tea rooms in the Petit Sablon.
We wandered around the Sablon area, popping into churches, admiring the comic book facades and taking in the view from the Palais de Justice, which perches high above the city.
All that walking naturally made us hungry all over again, so we went on the hunt for lunch. Fortunately, we were in spitting distance of Le Perroquet, the most upmarket kebab shop in Belgium, possibly even in Europe. We ordered little pitta pockets stuffed with grillade and merguez and slurped on enormous beers.
After refuelling, the time had come for the big reveal. I led the boys through the Galeries Royales St-Hubert, a beautiful 19th century shopping arcade, to the Grand Place. The Grand Place is Brussels’ crowning jewel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that manages to leave me feeling a little breathless with wonder every time I see it. I must have photographed it every which way possible, but I can never get enough of the intricate Gothic and Baroque architecture.
A quick detour via the Mannequin Pis (way small, way overrated) to amuse my mostly grown-up little brother, and we headed north again to check in.
We stayed at the Hotel BLOOM!, mainly due its proximity to Botanique, but it was somewhere I’d always had my eye on when I lived in Brussels.
As bright, young things on a budget, we couldn’t have been more happy with the price and the playful design scheme. The rooms are each decorated with a unique fresco, painted by one of the 287 artists commissioned to decorate the hotel.
We dined at my favourite Brussels restaurant, Le Fin de Siecle. I plumped for the carbonnades a la chimay, a rich beef and beer stew, which was preceded by delicious freshly baked bread and followed by sugary crème brulee with three spoons. As we departed at about 9.30, the queue was out the door and snaking along the street, despite the biting cold. Le Fin de Siecle is rightfully popular. Go, and you’ll see why.
For post-dinner drinks, I had to take the boys to my favourite bar, Goupil le Fol (that’s the Mad Fox to you and I). It’s a warren of cluttered rooms, lit only by candles and fringed lamps. Set over three floors, the sense that this little den of iniquity – a bordello in its former life – is bursting with the debauched secrets and murmurings of bohemians and reprobates and creatures of the underworld from decades gone by heightens with each set of stairs you climb. Best tuck yourself away in a corner and let the fug from fruit wine and the sound of Edith Piaf trilling alluringly from the jukebox wash over you and transport you back to a wilder, darker, more decadent era.
Onwards we went in search of beer. Delirium is reputed to have the longest beer list in the world. Famous for its pink elephant and delicious signature beer, many a night has been lost in what seems like minutes within these walls.
We departed in the early hours, only to discover it was snowing outside. We trudged home, stopping to pelt each other with snowballs in front of the cathedral on the way.
After another stop at the waffle van (2 euros rather than the extortionate hotel breakfast, lest you judge) and a brief shopping trip to buy gifts for our loved ones, the next day was mainly spent exploring the European Quarter. We checked out the Parliamentarium, the project I had worked on at the European Parliament, and pottered through the park to go and get frites at Maison Antoine.
We rounded off the weekend at my other favourite drinking establishment, Le Fleur en Papier Dore, an old surrealist hangout. We drank Hopus and Kriek and nibbled on salami and cheese until we parted ways — me to the station, my brother to the airport.
“Ne me quitte pas…” I pressed the right side of my face into train seat, and listened mournfully as Jacques Brel lingered hard and long over his consonants. I imagined him spitting them out, each a little bullet of sorrow, and tried not to let any tears escape into the worn grey felt. The Eurostar slid out of the station without so much as a judder, dawdling at first, before steadily gaining speed. I hadn’t been concentrating and had rather lost my bearings, so I was surprised – albeit pleasantly so — when I found myself drifting backwards, watching the city recede into the January night. The burnished dome of the Palais de Justice was lit up in all its glory, and behind it floated the neon lights of the Hilton. Soon though, all that was left to look at was the patchy snow lying by the tracks.
The boys and I all had the most wonderful weekend. A mixture of snow and sunshine and my experience of living in Brussels probably helped them see it in its best light, but not everyone feels about it the way I do. There’s a brilliant piece in Intelligent Life magazine, the best homage to Brussels I have read anywhere, which helps me explain to those who can’t understand exactly why I love this strange, grey city so much. “Brussels,” it says, “reveals its delights only slowly. In short, you have to live in Brussels to love it.”
From my own experience I know it to be true, but still, I hope that if you should visit, you will see in it some of what I see, and maybe even love it a little too.
5 things you need to know if you’re visiting Brussels
- The Belgians never clean up after their dogs. Seriously, watch your step!
- For some perspective, take the free lift between the lower and upper towns. The view from the Palais de Justice is the best in the city.
- Look out for the comic book facades wherever you go. There are tonnes of them scattered throughout the city — you can even take a tour if you’re determined to catch them all.
- Buy beer in supermarkets, not tourist shops – it’s much cheaper, and if you’re travelling by Eurostar, you don’t need to worry about carrying it in your hand luggage.
- Print off a use-it map before you go, it will be your best Brussels friend.