Our mini-break to Brussels felt somewhat cursed: booked to go during the famous Christmas Markets last November, we were thwarted by the city being under counter-terrorism lock down. Between then and now, our group dwindled in numbers (some simply getting the dates wrong and arriving a day late), our exchange rate plummeted and I had all but forgotten how to speak French. But, we pushed on undeterred and everything began to go our way from the minute we boarded the train.
Embracing the imminent bankruptcy of our currency, we threw caution to the wind and, between eleven of us, we sprawled across three private apartments and three king size rooms in the adjacent Radisson hotel. Whilst the Radisson ‘Red’ chain claimed to be aimed at youths, my backpacker lifestyle couldn’t have felt more distant as we cryogenically preserved ourselves with aircon, reenacted the Herbal Essences advert in our glamorous waterfall shower and inspected our actions from each night before, by casting photos onto our impossibly large Apple TV.
Having unintentionally arrived on Belgian National Day, my first glimpse of the city was provoked by seeing distant fireworks from our hotel window. New in town, we were totally unsure where to go, but ran as fast as we could towards the big flashing lights in the sky. The perfect welcome party. Naturally, this five minute sprint cost us around forty minutes of bemused wandering to find our way home. N.B. learn your address before any spontaneous excursions.
Luckily, the next time we braved the outdoors was en mass, and accompanied by locals who we picked up en route. Upon the recommendation of just about everyone I know who’s ever been to Brussels, we were headed for the infamous Delirium bar. Situated down a bustling, bar-filled alleyway, we were treated to live music, several unsolicited marriage proposals and a menu of over two thousand beers. It was a little intimidating at first, but I attempted filtering by price, and then by preferred flavourings, and simply got distracted as the unusually high alcohol content sneaked up on me.
Our first full day revolved, once again, around where we could stop for a drink. Luckily, we encompassed much wandering and sight-seeing (sort of) into this alcoholic exploration. As we lived a stones throw from Luxembourg Square, and in accordance with my rule that one simply isn’t on holiday until you’ve had a cold beer, in a square, under an awning, we sank our first enormous buckets of fruity beer here. We teamed this with looking over our shoulder at the European Parliament and strictly banned all talk of ‘Brexit’.
The streets of Brussels were unanimously quiet and picturesque. A stroll past the Palace of Justice, and some other impressive Corinthian columns, brought us to a glorious, sweeping view at the Mont des Arts and the mirage of a deckchair-laden, pop-up bar. The perfect spot to combine sight-seeing, street-drinking and people-watching; the favoured pose here being a romantic shot of lovers looking longingly at the view, comprised of a cityscape, some pristine gardens and a giant green horse’s arse.
Our final stop brought us ever closer to the famous Grand Place, but we caved in before we reached it and settled for stopping in a busy square, with yet another glamorous church and anywhere that was offering food more substantial than a box of macarons (delicious, but not ergonomically designed for lining stomachs.)
A glorious day of achieving very little and yet managing to see most of what Brussels had to offer. We congratulated ourselves with dancing both on the bar and in the rain at Cafe Depot, followed by a late night session in our intimately-sized sauna (basically a shed, in a changing room… but felt oh so swanky!)
Despite being away for such a short time, we made ourselves very much at home and luxuriated in a morning fry up at the largest of our apartments. Rejuvenated, we finally made it to Grand Place to marvel at the gothic monstrosities and the ornately golden adorned Starbucks; tick, tourism complete. Or it was, once we also found our way to the ridiculous (and underwhelming for most) statue of Mannequin Pis. It was exactly what it said on the tin: a tiny mannequin boy, having a wee in a fountain. Personally I was a little perturbed by the enormous crowds of tour groups fighting to get the perfect picture of this small boy, when the female version lay entirely unnoticed and uncelebrated, in a cage, at the end of the alleyway at Delirium. Where’s the equality in that?!
Luckily, to distract from my brief feminist outrage, I gorged on Belgian waffles and luxuriated in pick and mixing decadent truffles. Apparently, where there are tourists, there is chocolate; I certainly had no complaints about that.
Lying directly opposite the somewhat obscene fountain is another ideal spot for a beer. Whilst not quite offering 2000 varietals, Poechenellekelder has a drinks menu as eclectic as it’s decor. With walls covered in anything and everything, one barely knows where to look and ends up too distracted to contemplate which beer would be best! (I know this from experience, as I impulsively ordered a beer with ‘Trolls’ in the name, simply because it caught my eye.)
Since I was speaking French, we also indulged in a cheese platter and an overwhelmingly sized bucket of mussels, washed down with white wine. Luckily, Belgian and French cuisine and culture seem to overlap, so I didn’t feel like too much of a Brit Abroad, doing it all wrong. (Although if you play enough loud games around the dinner table and laugh until it hurts at unintentionally lewd comments, one can gain that reputation regardless!)
As if our eleven-strong group wasn’t enough, we had been invited to fraternise with some honorary locals and jumped at the chance to not have to think for ourselves vis a vis directions. From our own back garden, to their equally glamorous apartment and onwards to a series of un-named bars (don’t worry, I wasn’t necessarily going to sing odes to them anyway.) It seems the bar culture in Brussels revolves mostly around drinking in the street outside the establishment; presumably something to do with the warm air, the cobbled streets and the chatty passers-by.
Where one isn’t allowed to loiter outside, however, is the thumping techno club Fuse. No European excursion would have felt complete without revelling in the continent’s favourite musical genre. But, by 7am, we were once more ready for the sauna.
Naturally, the following day, we made it no further than Luxembourg Square again, before collapsing in the glorious sunshine in the next park we came across. (Luckily there were no Pokemon fanatics swarmed there to judge us this time!) I’m not sure if I speak for the group as a whole, but Brussels had broken me. The perfect city to do nothing but wander, eat, drink and laugh; and we did them all, in swathes. A mere two hour train hop to London, the outdoor culture, surrounded by infinite glamorous buildings, epitomises the “holiday” vibe. Even our friend who doesn’t drink beer had fun; promise!