Sunday, February 26, 2012

Brussels & Bruges, Belgium

“G’Day, Eat Travel Dive Readers!”
The Grand Place at night
With our travels through the winter Scandinavian cities of Oslo, Goteborg and Stockholm behind us it was time for Winnie and I to take a short flight to Brussels.  It has long been a fantasy of mine to travel to Brussels.  I’ve always loved the idea of a short break in a romantic setting coupled with a selection of some of the finest food options available – Belgian Chocolate, Belgian Waffles, Belgian Beers to name but a few.  I’ve always imagined saving Brussels, to travel to Brussels, moreover to Belgium, with that “special person in my life” to have an escape from reality, with total and utter connection to each other.  Over the years, and more recently whilst planning this trip with Winnie, it has moved from fantasy to reality, and during the planning we learnt that Bruges (actually Brugge, pronounced “Brug-gah” by the locals) was a fantastic little hideaway city.

Chocolate Mannekin Pis - yum!

In our best efforts to make this trip our trip of a lifetime, we flew from Stockholm to Brussels on February 13th, staying for Valentine’s Day and leaving the following morning.  We’ve found that we can pretty much sum up a city and all of it’s major (and some not so major) sights, sounds, tastes and smells within 2 days (usually we hammer it on the first day and revisit the best places on the second day).  With two days to fulfil this portion of our trip, we decided that Brussels would get priority over Bruges, but if we had time we would make a good effort to get under the skin of this town too.

 “Plan your trip, then Trip your Plan!”

My advice to anyone planning a trip; Plan it thoroughly, then go for it.  It really is best to arrive with a plan, an itinerary of where you wanna go and how you plan to get there.  This sounds obvious, but trust me, we’ve seen plenty of travellers who have no idea, who arrive on day one without a clue of anything or what each city holds in store for them.  We know what we’re up against, know the rough lay of the land, know transport options and know what attractions and things we will be doing.  We leave some things to the element of surprise, but we head to our accommodation, drop off our bags and collect a map.  We then pick the collective brains of the local staff working at the counter of the accommodation (these guys are usually a willing and veritable tree of local knowledge waiting anxiously to be tapped) and head off into the day.  My other piece of advice is to arrive as early as possible in each city, give yourself a fighting chance.  Ready, Set…. GO!

Grand Place, at night
SO off we set into the late afternoon (the only flight got us there at 2pm) with Brussels coming out of the Blue Corner ready to give us it’s best…Starting with rain.  Lots and lots of wet, drizzle drenching rain.

We first headed to the main town, the area known as the “Grand Place”, which indeed was exactly that – a grand place.  Lots of huge medieval buildings, set into a traditionally cobbled square, each building oozing grandeur and architectural brilliance.  The main sights of Brussels are set around the city centre, and easily navigated using your feet and / or the metro - both being child’s play easy to do, both very accessible.  The metro in Brussels was clean and tidy, fast and on time.

The Mannekin Pis

We were told by a group of travellers in Stockholm (from Brussels) that we should seek out Brussels three main sculptures.  We were forewarned that Brussels is famed for an alternative approach to art.  So, in seeking out the “Mannekin Pis”, a small (very small) sculpture of a small boy (did I say he was small) doing no other than….taking a Piss!  The mannekin pis is proudly presented on T-shirts, souvenirs, posters and almost all food types; clearly the Belgians have an odd sense of comedy – but it makes you laugh.  Next, we seeked out his (less talked about) family member - his younger sister.  She is set down a dark alleyway, near one of the best pubs in Beglium.  She is not so popular, but I found her to be surprisingly heart warming.  She is simply squatting for what can only be described (by the look cast on her face) as having taking a dump or being unable to publicly squeeze out her wee-wee with the same proud confidence that her elder brother does.  My money’s on taking a dump.

Mannekin's sister, Annekin Pis
The third and least popular sculpture of Brussels, and my personal favourite, is that of a dog.  Yes!  The dog is on a lonely street corner (not far from St Katherine’s Cathedral) with his hind leg cocked up, taking yet another “pis” – this time over a street bollard!  The life like size of the doggie and his almost careless look makes this statue the most real, in my opinion!

The Doggy Pis
Statues and joking aside, the locations of the three pissing “mannekins” sort of triangulate the city, and contain its major tourist attractions. Other to the Grand Place, we located the other major architectural sights, two cathedrals – the Cathedral du Saint Catherine and the other being the Cathedral du Saints Michel & Gudule, the Royal Palace, the Parc du Bruxelles (not a building), and of course the Atomium.  Place du St Catherine was a dreary place, with some restaurants and a rather gothic looking cathedral, not as fancy as the second and clearly better looked after Cathedral (Brussels must love Michel & Gudule more than Catherine!).  The rain continued to pour until we had seen both cathedrals.  Then it just stopped.  Random but true.  Onto the Royal Palace, a very nice piece of symmetrical design work.  I liked this one, plus it had a yellow-gold tone which was nice, even on the greyest of days.  The Parc, however, lacked the brilliance of the Palace – you might think it is so that peeps who come to see the palace are not swayed away from that Royal building to look at flowers….still it may look better in summer – in fact I’m certain it would be prettier.

I should point out that we covered very little on the first afternoon/evening due to rain and hunger.  We found the recommended ultimate hunger buster – Frites, from friteland followed by (you guessed it) a super phat-bastard waffle covered in cream and chocolate.  The frites were delicious, golden with a light crunchiness, with a smooth velvety filling – cooked to perfection and served with the largest array of sauce options I’ve ever seen… I went for spicy (Winnie went half-half).  Portion sizes in Brussels are good.  The waffle would have been better served on a plate with knife and fork, but since we were in the backstreets (being budget conscious) we had a small paper tray, with the waffle semi-glued on with choc-sauce.  Oh and the lovely lady gave us chip forks, which we now think was a sick joke.  Winnie managed to snap three forks, before giving in to the inevitable (which I had already gotten stuck into) – hands…eat with your hands, get messy and really enjoy it.

About to eat the crazy waffles!

On the first night, we then went through the old part of town, window shopped the posh chocolate galleries and ended up in Delerium, home of the largest concentration of beers I have ever seen, oh and its where the squatting girl mannekin pis is!  So, Delerium has 2300 Belgian Beers.  There were near on 300 draught beers, leaving 2000 bottled beers.  Draught beers come in 30cl, 50cl, 1ltr and 2ltr sized portions!!  We opted for draught beers and the 30cl sizes so we could try more; we then tasted before we purchased (love this), and found a cute booth to sit in.  I tried 5 beers, all 10% or higher in alcohol volume – none tasted of treacle or anything yucky.  Winnie had the lighter sweeter beers (pear, cherry and a beer called “Pink Killer”) and seemed to be enjoying them – TICK, Belgium was really leaving its mark on us!  After trying 10 beers between us, we headed home, albeit a little fuzzy.

Excited after a few beers, at Delerium
Gaffa @ Delerium - all smiles :)
So, early start on Valentine’s day and a little catch up ahead of us – this is why having a plan helps.  We were able to hit the spots exactly, perfect execution if I do say so myself.  We started with the Catherdals and the Palace as mentioned, then hopped on a train (love these Interrail passes) to Bruges which was only 1hour away.

Arrival in Bruges was around 11am.  I planned Bruges (it was Valentines after all) so we strolled along the canal that runs north around the city from the station to a collection of windmills.  We climbed one and took some photos which were great since the rain had stopped and the skies were turning blue at last!  After the windmills we headed down through the medieval streets (cobbled again), passing a network of frozen canals and the oldest pub in Belgium.  It was too early to drop in so we carried on to the main central part of Brugge.  We stopped for a quick look in the shop at the Frites Museum (yes a fries museum), which looked a little too boring for either of us.  We headed towards the main historic Markt, to stop and gaze at the Belfry which rises up over Bruges 366 Steps.  We opted to not bother to look at the view, since it had started to go grey up above our heads.  No point in climbing 366 steps to see a few clouds – plus we got the best view for free from a windmill (which seems more our style).  After we headed to the Burg, this is said to be the place where a few coagulated drops of Christ’s blood is kept and cherished.  We got so far as the door – which was abruptly slammed in our faces, “we close at 12pm” and there it was noon already.  So we took off for some lunch.  We found a local little fritery (is that a word?) and I opted for the Frite in a baguette…not realising it would be a whole baguette!  Yummy hot sauce, aptly named Samuri Piri-Piri for its potency.  Winnie went for a milder sauce on her standard portion of frites.

More frites!
After lunch we headed back to the train station, passing a few more of Bruge’s wonderful buildings and I have to say – Bruges is a strange place, it’s cosy and eccentric.  It’s not the buildings that make it a great place to visit, nor the people, but it’s the wandering around those narrow streets and along those canal banks that give Bruges its character.  My advice for Bruges – use a map, we did and didn’t get lost – others weren’t so lucky, perhaps they’ll still be wandering through the streets looking for something, somewhere..

the canals in Brugge
Back on the train and back to Brussels an hour later.  Then a couple of quick stops:  Souvenirs (Winnie has a T-shirt fettish), Chocolate shopping and back on the metro heading to the Atomium.

What is the Atomium?

The Atromium is what happens when you let a scientist, an architect and some boring engineer-types design a new way to view the city (like the London Eye for example)…only the Atomium is not linked to something aeronautical, it’s the atomic structure of Iron (why choose iron) magnified 350 Billion times.  Each of the bonds connecting the little nodes (you can tell I sucked at chemistry) of the iron’s structure has a lift/elevator to take you to another level view point.  Thing is where it is located it seems a bit far from the city, and on a cloudy day you see Jack.  It was raining again when we arrived, and we decided to take photos of the weird (and wonderful) structure.  The Atomium is next door to little Europe if you’re interested, we weren’t so we hopped back on the metro and head for the city. 

When we got to the city, the rain was hammering down so we decided to not dress up for dinner.  We opted to go straight out for an early one.  We were going to be getting up at the crack of dawn to head to Amsterdam.  Proud we had visited all of the best sights, eaten lots of chocolate - we purchased an awesome 250g box of chocolates from Leonidas (recommended to us), and they were 25% of the price of Godiva’s which was way too expensive..although I did take us a few “free” samples TO GO, as we left…

We went out for a cheap meal (not even worth talking about) – Except this: LISTEN to me now, Do not eat at any of the “restaurants” down the narrow street near to Delerium – they are all the same, owned by the same people, selling the same over salty rubbish that will give you ulcers and make you angry.  Avoid at all costs.  We were given this advice by our Belgian friends in Stockholm and we ignored it and paid the price.  It was so bad I needed to go for a beer… Handy coincidence Delerium was right there to take the pain away.  A lovely sweet beer later and we were heading back to the Hostel (Hello Hostel is pretty nice, simple happy accommodation) to pack for Amsterdam.

For good food stay close to St Catherine’s Place or the Grand Place – you can’t go far wrong there.  If like us chocolate is on your agenda, the cheapest place to buy is at the supermarket (where you can get almost everything sold by the exclusive stores for a fraction of the price).  We love cheap options!  We went to the exclusive places and tried the freebies, but after we bought it at the supermarket.  Leonidas was reasonably priced so we did spend 5 Euros on 250g of amazing chocolates which we are slowly eating as we travel. 

Gaffa's heaven
Savouring every piece, we will see you next time!

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