And we are back! Another trip is in the books, not entirely a success, but still a largely positive getaway.
As I might have mentioned, our choice of Brussels as the next destination was largely influenced by the fact that Eurostar – high-speed train that links London with the continent – has a direct route to the Belgian capital. This was not our first experience with a high-speed train (we travelled on AVE in Spain), but we were looking forward to it nonetheless. Our choice of transportation was definitely a winner: Comfortable seats, quiet movement, overpriced but well-stocked bar nearby…
The check-in procedure was similar to the one at the airport, including metal detectors (but without having to remove our shoes). It was, however, much quicker, which was primarily a function of spaced apart departures.
We lucked into an almost empty carriage. We had two sets of facing seats with a table in between – sort of a coupé – which is a great idea on the surface, if not for the fact that leg-room becomes a problem for anyone not sitting opposite Kimmy (and even that becomes contentious eventually). So, we spread around a bit.
AVE had TV screens, where Eurostar did not have any, but that was probably the only shortcoming. The trip lasted less than two and a half hours with a stop in Lille (which some trains do not make). I estimated that from Mottingham, we needed to leave no more than 90 minutes before departure, add the trip itself plus half an hour for reaching our final destination in Brussels, making the total trip duration about four and a half hours. Going with the air travel, we would have to leave house at least three hours prior to departure, and even if the flight time is less than an hour, disembarking, reclaiming luggage and a considerably longer trip to the city center could easily add two more hours, making the trip last around six hours in total. Let’s not even mention the hassle and anxiety that come packaged together with flying. High-speed train wins handily!
Anyhow, in the early afternoon on Sunday, we moved into a high-rise apartment on the edge of Brussels center. The views from 24th floor – on three different sides of the building – were fantastic. The apartment itself was a bit funky: Quite large loft-like space, with all utilities (including toilet, shower and kitchen) hidden inside closets. The kids had a lot of fun playing hide-and-seek in there. Since our plans normally include as much time out and about as possible, we are always looking for simply serviceable sleeping accommodations, and this apartment definitely sufficed.
I will stay away from a chronological account of our explorations.
Intermittent rain and two young ladies somewhat averse to lengthy walks and in-depth museum visits dictated our itinerary, but Brussels by itself is truly a day-and-a-half city, unless you feel obliged to visit every major museum. The Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts contains a collection of Flemish masters that is one of the best in the world, but little else of note. A couple of other art museums can fill in gaps in schedule, if needed, but are hardly essential stops. There are several attractive and pleasant parks and squares, as well as streets in the center of the city, which could satisfy anyone who is fond of simply soaking in the local atmosphere (but in February, you are likely to end up just soaking wet). All in all, a determined tourist can figure out how to spend several active days in this city; yet, for a person who have seen other grand cities of the Old World, Brussels does not offer a lot of must-sees.
The main town square, though, is worth the visit many times over. Grand Place (despite appearance, this is in French), or Grote Markt (in Flemish), is a magnificent square surrounded by majestic feats of 17-century architecture. Simply fantastic! Thinking back to all the great public places that we have seen in our travels, Grand Place would hold its own in any comparison.
Beyond that, the city is just nice, nothing more. The famous Manneken Pis (the peeing boy) is hardly worth the attention, even though every tourist necessarily comes about and most snap pictures. The Atomium on the outskirts of the city – a huge metallic model of an atom, consisting of nine spheres, connected by walkways and escalators, – provides a good vantage point (but with our high-rise view, we were not too impressed). The Cathedral possesses brilliant stained-glass windows – and bears uncanny resemblance to Notre-Dame de Paris from the outside.
Throughout the city, there are examples of work by Victor Horta, a famous Art Nouveau architect of the beginning of the 20th century. We visited a couple of his houses, and while they are definitely of interest, in my humble opinion, Horta is no Gaudí.
What Brussels may be lacking in terms of exciting sightseeing, it has in abundance in terms of cuisine. Waffles are ubiquitous through the city center. Great restaurants can be found in many places.
One place, though, is quite unique. Several blocks along Rue des Bouchers and its environs are a pedestrian culinary heaven. Every door is a restaurant, each one offering traditional local dishes with some other regional slant (Italian, Moroccan, Provencal, etc.) Mussels and other seafood dominates, but meats are widely available. The menus and prices are very similar in all establishments, regardless of what they call themselves, and, as far as we can tell, the quality is pretty much on the same level in every one. A la carte selections are rather expensive, but prix-fixe menus are priced very nicely. Each place positions a waiter outside the front door, who extols the virtues of the kitchen to the passerby. It is actually quite hard to walk by without feeling enticed to come in, especially when some sort of a “deal” is thrown in (for instance, Kimmy ate for free one night). I surmise that all of the establishments somehow work together and share profits in the end, as there is little to differentiate them by, yet they appear to compete for customer.
Well, we had all of our dinners in this area, colloquially called Ilot Sacre (sacred islet). Even tried to come over for lunch once, but there is no such thing as a lunch menu, and we did not feel like stuffing ourselves with dinner-quality meal for lunch.
Having visited most of the stops in our plan by end of day Monday, we were planning to take a day-trip to Ghent on Tuesday, but this is where our holiday went awry. Natasha woke up with a fever and had to stay in bed. I cajoled the kids into a museum trip (curious but language-barrier-impaired Comic Strip Museum), then took them to a playground in the central city park, and later that day we went on another walk around city center, while Natasha varied her time between napping and taking paracetamol. She felt better on Wednesday and we went out for a couple of hours, but it was obviously not the same mood.
The return trip on Eurostar was the mirror image of the first one. Except that besides us, in our empty carriage there were three ladies of Far-Eastern persuasion, who incessantly talked in their high-pitched voices in their native tongue. Even moving around the car could not shield us from the sound of their voices, until we reached a point of blocking them out.
P.S. Natasha is feeling much better today – she even drove Becky to the skating practice.