26 Hours in Brussels

Last week I found out I’d have to leave and reenter the UK in order to change my visa status. In a panic, but with no desire to fly again so soon, I chose the cheapest available destination on the Eurostar: Brussels! It was a happy coincidence, as I’d wanted to visit Belgium for a while. For you see, this lovely country is home to some of my favourite characters–feisty Hercule Poirot, adventurous young Tintin, Dr. Evil–not to mention some terrific food. Brussels is all about the delicious food, really, and less strict about it than their Southern neighbour. France is beautiful, certainly, but I wouldn’t call it relaxed. Brussels, on the other hand, specializes in eating and drinking for vacations, when you’re having fun: crispy street frites with mayonnaise, waffles with powdered sugar, creamy dark chocolates and artisanal monk-brewed beer. I’ve heard that to be relaxed, à l’aise, is the ultimate goal for a Brusseleir; to be considered branché (trendy) is rather undesirable. So I suppose you can presume that Brussels has a very chilled-out side, perhaps a side that comes from being such a diverse, mixed sort of country made up of European Union workers, the native Walloons and Flemish inhabitants, as well as all the immigrants from the rest of Europe, French-speaking Africa and the Middle East.

When I got off the train I was starving, as always, so I headed straight to the centre near the Grand Place to find myself a waffle. I found a very nice one at Mokafe, which I discovered later is apparently one of the finest places in the city to get a waffle. It must have been over a year since I last had a waffle, but this one was worth the wait; it was crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside, and served with sliced bananas and chocolate. This cafe also had the most interesting patrons, so it was the perfect place for one of my favourite pastimes: eavesdropping. I was sitting next to a pair of long-lost cousins, a lone woman in a red coat and dramatic sunglasses, a Dutch-speaking couple trying to keep track of at least four tiny dogs and their tiny pram, and fluffy-haired people of all sorts, all spending a very agreeable Thursday morning.

This same complex, Galerie du Roi, was composed almost entirely of chocolate shops, so naturellement I had to test the wares. Like a giant snob, I didn’t want to bring home the ubiquitous Godiva truffles from Brussels, so I was lucky to stumble upon Mary Chocolatier. I had read about Mary in 1000 Places to See Before You Die before I left London, and it seemed too good to miss. I bought both São Tomé dark and Mexican milk chocolates and, as you can imagine, tore open a bar as soon as I left the store.

I spent a lot of time eating, bien sûr, but food isn’t the only thing there is to Brussels; it’s also just a really cool city to walk around in and take pictures. It’s really eclectic, a little gritty beneath its chocolate-box exterior and, best of all, lacks the crush of people you often find in London. I mean, it’s a bit too gritty by the East exit of the Gare du Nord (because you’re essentially entering the Red-Light District) but even a block away the area never felt dangerous or mean-spirited; it was composed of brightly coloured shops, neon signs, and what seemed like a good sense of humour. And you can see this sense of humour in the quirky signs and statues all around the city. Think about it: the city’s mascot is a little boy peeing, and their most famous 20th-century artist is that surrealist master who claimed that a pipe was not, indeed, a pipe. Brussels doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s highly creative; Antwerp may be Belgium’s design capital–especially when it comes to fashion–but style is definitely flowing through Brussels’ waters, in everything from its comics and films to architecture and–always–food. I highly recommend visiting, if you can. À bientôt les amis!

Two things I was not expecting to see in the botanical gardens