What are weekends made for? Short escapades, you guessed right. This time we’re heading to Brussels, the capital of Belgium and beating heart of the European Union, to practice the ancient art of retrouvailles with an old uni friend.
First tip to visiting Brussels: Pack a Frenchie with great negotiations skills. You can thank me (and them) later.
For Brussels, I left the camera home as I did not want anything to stand between the city and me; I wanted to soak in the city vibes and focus on the details: the way people talk, walk, dress, drink, the different architecture styles, the smell of fresh waffles in the streets, the store fronts, the murals.
Crossing the English Channel feels like returning home. To me, Central Europe has an uncomplicated, old-school charm that London, being the super modern, buzzing metropolis that it is, lacks. [Of course I’m over-romanticizing everything; everything is complicated across the pond, especially nowadays. But please let me continue, this was my weekend get-away after all.] In London, everything from human relationships to food has to be following the latest trend – gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, politically correct, sapiosexual, flexitarian, you get the idea. I like to think that things go slowly over there, in a straightforward, fuss-free manner, probably following the same patterns they’ve been following for decades: Beer is brewed by humans, not hipsters; people chat up strangers in public transport, writers pen their finest thoughts whilst sipping double espresso after double espresso and listening to rain falling intensely but, at the same time, softly against the window glass; couples meet at bars and not on Tinder. Cities showcase a palette of 50 shades of grey that would make the titular blockbuster blush, but without being dull. Instead, they become the landscapes of the biggest love stories and most scathing history dramas, fooling you into believing that they’re not melancholic but romantic. [OK, I know that I’m doing it again. Let’s return to our trip.]
Anyway, I arrived to Brussels only to find that it was all that and then some more, since it was sunny and warm and full of people swarming into the streets to enjoy the beautiful weather. [Note to self: After London and New York, no amount of tourists seems terrifying enough.] We walked loads; from the square of Sainte-Catherine to the Bourse, through Grand Place to Manneken Pis (smaller than the internet will let you believe), from the Palais des beaux-arts de Bruxelles into the Parc de Bruxelles, all while N. had to put up with me consistently mispronouncing every single road name and tourist attraction that we came across.
If you ever visit Brussels, visiting Grand Place twice is highly recommended. We returned there (let’s say whilst intentionally lost) after the sunset, when the buildings around the square were beautifully lit up. Also, if you look carefully, you will notice that the facade of Hôtel de Ville de Bruxelles, i.e. Brussels City Hall for us non-French-speaking common mortal men/women, is not symmetric at all, its left side being slightly longer than the right one.
On the second day of our trip, there was even more walking. Getting off at Maelbeek metro station, we walked past the very silent and very eerie Le Berlaymont building that is home to the European Commission headquarters and all the way to Parc du Cinquantenaire and then to the European Quarter through Leopold Park – both of them being awfully quiet for a Sunday afternoon.
But enough with the walking tour; let’s talk about people. Belgians apparently seem to be Northern Europeans with an acute South-European-itis; open, cordial-ish and well-dressed. Walking through the narrow, cobblestone streets around Sainte-Catherine and carefully observing the people hanging out in bars on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but notice that they emanated the vibes of someone who has discovered the secret of joie de vivre but will fiercely refuse to let you into it.
At the same time, they seem to refuse to take themselves particularly seriously, as a handsome local confided in me. [At that moment I wanted to confess some other, not particularly serious thoughts running through my mind but he seemed very enthusiastic about our brief introduction to Belgian culture so I let him continue.] This explains their long history with comics as well as the peeing sculptures and the plethora of murals gracing street corners. One just needs to keep their eyes peeled.
Like all cities I’m enthusiastic about (s. Athens and Manchester), Brussels is no stereotypical beauty; you won’t fall in love with it at first sight yet it will slowly but surely crawl under your skin. Not able to savor it enough during this short weekend girls trip, my recommendations list is only a timid one: Have dinner at Fin de Siecle – no reservations, just grab a drink and stand in the line, which moves surprisingly quickly, study the menu on the wall as you wait, and indulge in the staff’s friendliness (and beer suggestions). Stretch your limbs and enjoy brunch outdoors at Peck 47 or Chicago Cafe – hip but still unpretentious. On a sunny day, people-watch at Place Sainte Catherine while munching on seafood goodies from De Nordzee. Go window-shopping at Galeries Saint-Huberts and do your vintage shopping in the small covered market of Saint-Géry every first Sunday of the month or at the Jeu de Balle flea market close to Sablon. Do not miss the Bozar and the Magritte museum. Queue for fries, wherever that may be.
Wanderlusting (as always),