Never arrive in Brussels on a Sunday, you will be disappointed. The city looks dead, deserted as if hit by a plague. Why Brussels, of all places, you would ask. Well, some years back when we took a whistle-stop tour of Europe courtesy SOTC we quite liked this quaint, vibrant, not so expensive (rare in Europe) city. So, we wanted to explore it a little more when we were Europe-bound again last summer.
Our flight to Brussels was longish - via Munich - but we don’t mind stopovers or scurrying around like lost rabbits looking for gate B57. We smiled at nasty immigration officers, glugged bitter coffee and even tried to read German newspapers on the way. We had planned meticulously for this trip. Planning, deliberating, weighing options is our favorite pastime. We downloaded endless lists “Top 10 things to do in Brussels”, “What must you to eat, what to avoid”, “What should you expect”. The husband brushed up his French. We surveyed dozens of hotels. When you book online and take virtual tours, the hotel looks snazzy, the rooms spiffy, the bathrooms alluring. When you check in, you realize photography is an art. Cozy, we murmured as we dumped our bags and freshened up for an evening out.
Just as we stepped out my eyes beheld the most beautiful sight. A colorful Sunday market!! Like any other woman I love shopping and at foreign locales I go berserk (that’s putting it mildly). Joyous, I ran towards the stalls much to the husband’s amusement. My excitement was short lived. I sniggered and shook my head vigorously at the exorbitantly priced Janpath-like fare. Heartbroken, we head for the famed Grote Market. The title “market” is a misnomer. The four days we stayed there we hardly saw the shops open! And if they deigned to open, it was an 11-5 window much like our sarkari offices. But the market even with the shops closed was delightful. A maze of quaint cobbled streets lined with eateries, bustling with cheerful people guzzling beer. Brussels is famed for its beer and some other things that do not make for family reading. The sight of so many relaxed, happy people lifted our now flagging spirits, but my feet did not share the same sense of elation. Cobbled streets sound utterly romantic and charming when you read about them - but try walking on them on your heels. It is an exercise in sheer grit and determination. Seeing statuesque European women sail past me on their sky scraper heels didn’t make me feel any better. But that didn’t stop me from ogling at them, God! They all look so gorgeous!
The Grote Market converges onto the town hall square - also known as the Grand Palace. It is a magnificent square (a UNESCO heritage site) flanked by ornate 17th century buildings. The square acquires different hues through the day. In the afternoon, it dazzles you with its majestic luminescence and liveliness. The square teems with tourists sunning themselves and artists trying to capture its beauty on their canvas. In the evening it transforms into a glittering diva all lit up, buzzing with cultural expositions. We were lucky to catch an ongoing Jazz festival.
The next day we discovered, much to our dismay that Brussels will be closed again, courtesy a bank holiday. Considering we had three measly days at our disposal we were definitely not amused. We opted for a walkathon, discovering the city on foot. The weather mercifully was pleasant. We stopped to admire lovely cathedrals (aren’t they all beautiful), closed establishments, artfully done window displays. Brussels has an active, visible gay community. Poster of a naked comely man had my eyes popping out. I engaged in retail therapy at the local supermarket, piling my shopping cart with Muesli, Macadamia nuts, pralines and exotic wines. Ironically Godiva , Belgium’s most famous export, is not exactly sought after by the locals. After consuming tons of praline I heavily recommend Cote D’Or.
Dining in Brussels was quite an eclectic experience. Rue des Bouchers is much favored for a “Mussels in Brussels” experience. This long street is lined with eating joints serving sea food. Each establishment engages in aggressive soliciting. We felt like celebrities sought after by so many. It was amusing to watch people nonchalantly demolish buckets of mussels. It’s not bad if you prefer your food just boiled with a little salt. The Belgians love frites (potato fries for the less initiated). They devour it in paper cones, on plates, with ketchup, without ketchup, in wraps, with beer. Any dish is incomplete without frites. You just can’t escape them. But you can’t go back without having waffles near the Grand Palace. With a variety of toppings to choose from, they are delightfully sinful. And of course the famed Belgian chocolates. Melt in mouth pralines, chocolate massage cream, chocolate lipstick, x rated body parts. Imagination and decadence know no bounds.
Next was Bruges. Located in the Flanders district, it is a must see. A prominent world heritage site, it is often called the Venice of North. We took the train to this stunning city pooh-poohing all other touristy options. Conducted tours, we feel, are meant to take the joy out of discovering new places. Water tight schedules and being herded around like cattle is definitely not our cup of tea. A short journey later we arrived at a station that looked more like an airport. As we came out, the self-reliant husband of mine spent an astonishing amount of time consulting an impossible, not-drawn-to-scale map. My plea to ask passers-by for directions fell on deaf ears. Actually the map is his favorite piece of literature - like Da Vinci’s code. I decided to follow a gaggle of tourists leaving him to fend for himself. Bruges defines pretty with its cobbled streets, horse drawn carriages, serene canals and spectacular architecture. The Church of our Lady, a famous landmark, is known for Madonna and Child sculpted by Michelangelo. We entered its hallowed portals to the sound of lilting music with renaissance style paintings and stained glass lining its ancient walls. There is something about the grandeur of cathedrals that makes you feel humbled and experience the unexplained.
A few months back I had watched the movie “In Bruges”. The city, especially the market square was so beautifully filmed that it had tickled my interest. The square was high on our agenda of must do’s but we had yet to come across it. We kept on negotiating streets, poring through the map, trying hard to identify landmarks, but the square was nowhere in sight. Then, all of a sudden, and with no warning, we found ourselves in front of it. Our jaws dropped as we gaped at this familiar looking, breathtakingly beautiful expanse that no photograph can do justice to. Bordered by medieval structures and numerous eateries, it dazzles you with its splendor. We spent the first few minutes just clicking away (both of us were carrying our own cameras). Like fresh off-the-boat natives, we gazed at the stunning facades and the famed Belfry Tower with its 48 bells. Unfortunately all that running around had sapped me and we dropped the idea of climbing its numerous stairs to get a view. We spent the rest of the day getting lost in quest of a heavily recommended restaurant. P.S. we did find Brassiere Forrestiere and it was a huge disappointment.
On our last day in Brussels we finally managed to see the shops open. Europe’s first shopping mall Galeries Royale St Hubert, built way back in the 1847, is located in the heart of the city. An imposing structure it houses a few pricey boutiques and gourmet chocolate shops. Rue de Neuve is where Brussels shops. A pedestrian-only zone, it is crammed with high end stores. We spent a blissful day acquiring a chic wardrobe. The only sour note? Walking into a Body Shop/Lush store and finding everything written in Dutch. We spent our evening at the arty, very chic Sablon district. Unfortunately all the galleries had shut shop even though it was early evening. But we still managed to spot some stunning works of art. The Belgians are obviously not too keen on commerce, it bores them. The day ended with a hearty meal at Falstaff, an establishment set up in 1901.
So would I recommend Brussels to you? It is a city that has universal appeal. There’s something for everybody, the gourmand, the bohemian, the sophisticate, the artiste and even a crazy shopaholic like me. But please don’t go looking only for the famed Manekin Pis. Like the Monalisa in the Louvre, your first reaction will be, THIS IS IT?