Belgium – August/September 2018

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Day 1 – to Brussels

It’s virtually impossible to think of Belgium without that most chief of Belgian exports flooding one’s mind. Yes, we’re all thinking of the same thing….Gotye (that fella who had that song once)! We will be seeking the lesser known Belgian joys however, and hoping to find the odd beer and maybe even some chocolate. Yes, Belgium does beer and chocolate too.

Ryanair have had so many updates to their bag policy recently that I’m heading into this one without any clue as to what I’ll be allowed carry onto the plane. Add to that, the fact that they’ve sent me approximately a million emails advertising, updating, informing and warning me about everything one could possibly link to a trip abroad. I’m fairly certain I can pre-book Belgian Waffles, for the morning after my arrival, through Ryanair. I’ll have to add every single topping using an overly complex ordering system that offers me hotel accommodation and Samsonite luggage at the most inopportune moments, but sure hey; you get what you pay for.

If you’re heading to Brussels, definitely get the train in. For the time saved, those taxi fares of €50 for a fifteen minute journey from the airport in are just not worth it. That said; I would have actually paid more for the taxi driver to stop talking. We were convinced he was bringing us in circles and making a point of pointing out a load of sights which neither of us will remember their locations in five minutes. A quick Google shows the price to be totally legit, just crazy high.

Day 2 – Brussels

For day two we’ll be spending my birthday in Belgium. First order of business is to hunt down some good waffles for breakfast. If there’s a coffee to go with that too, then fine. Waffles and coffee secured, we consume on the steps of a museum in the Grand-Place. A wee bit too much powdered sugar, but otherwise nice and crispy. Not a bad place to sit and eat your birthday breakfast.

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Orla brings me to the most famous market in Brussels, which is not operating, presumably due to rain. Next up is Moeder Lambic, which is closed until 4pm. Poor Orla. She is becoming totally stressed as her plans for my big day slowly unravel. To be honest, we get to walk a few of the streets in Brussels many districts and get a nice introduction to the city outside the main tourist traps, so it’s really fantastic.

We manage to find a bar on the itinerary that is open in La Porteuse d’Eau where I indulge in my first Oude Gueze. Somewhere between a wine and a cider. An unusual experience for me. Nowhere near familiar when compared to any beer I’ve tried and I’m not completely sold on it. The Omer blonde is far easier drinking. As we wander aimlessly from La Porteuse d’Eau we stumble on Wesh: for lunch. Vegan hot dogs alongside meat ones and it doesn’t look like the type of place to separate while cooking. Just as well we’re not vegan. I’ll tell you what though; they’re some top notch hot dogs. Toasted pumpkin seeds as toppings and all. A real delight for something we weren’t holding out too much hope for.

We stroll back towards to central hub and assume we’ve found the Mannekin Pis when we see a crowd of people all gazing up at the tiny statue. A total waste of time. I think it might actually be a joke. Not a funny joke, but a joke I guess. You sort of have to see it when you’re here but there is not a person on earth missing out who doesn’t see it. We seek out Moeder Lambic, the other one, which is open. A cool bar, with The Black Angels pumping from the speakers as we walk in. The Lambic is tough work; you wouldn’t be on a Lambic session for sure. The bar staff are far too cool for this planet, or think they are. Trying so hard to appear not to give a shit. It’s a little bit funny.

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It looks like it’s going to piss rain and we’re having difficulty focusing on what to eat so we duck into the nearest Brasserie for some sausages and stoemp (Belgian mash; in this case carrot and parsnip). Delicious, but ridiculously heavy. It takes a Grand auld step around La Place, as well as the side streets of central Brussels to walk off even a minute piece of our dinner. We wash down the last of the evening at La Port Noir with a couple of nice birthday beers. It’s a cool cellar bar with some decent tunes and an extremely relaxed atmosphere. The bar staff playing the nonchalant card really well here. Almost getting away with it too, but for the fact that they are pretty much entirely engrossed in their phones. Hard to look cool when your face is dimly lit by your SnapTwit page.

Day 3 – Brussels

Our hotel is a hive of activity at half eight in the morning. Housekeeping come knocking, waking us up in the process. It takes some quick feet to stop them at the door. Now that we’ve been awoken there really isn’t much point going back to bed so we go in search of Peck 47 where we get some chorizo waffles with poached eggs. You can’t really go wrong with chorizo and eggs so it all goes down really well. You’ve got to eat those waffles quick though, if you leave them too long to sit you’ll have a sort of waffle soup going on. The coffee in Peck 47 is definitely worth a visit alone. We walk around for a bit before taking aim for the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, in a side street just off La Grand-Place. The private museum doesn’t take long to get around but is fairly interesting. There’s a demonstration with a master chocolatier at the end and we’re shown how to make Belgian pralines. So, basically I’ll never have to buy a box of chocolates again (rubs hands together; menacingly).

We walk out to Anderlecht to visit Brewery Cantillon. There are a load of people sitting around quaffing their Lambics and Gueuze like it is heaven sent. The stuff is not great. It’s a chore to drink and certainly not enjoyable enough to sit for the day tipping away. Orla is particularly disgusted by what she perceives as an offensive taste. I understand the enjoyment probably takes acquiring but I’m not sure I have the energy, or resolve, to power through to the other side. I knock back the rest of our tasters and we take aim for Fritland and some pretty fine chips and mayo. At various points the frites guy whacks a tray on the counter to disperse the congregation of pigeons as his customers duck and dodge the fleeing birds.

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We haven’t spent much time in Brussels main square so we decide to have our coffee in an extremely loud Grand-Place where a guy with a megaphone gives everyone a headache while commentating on some sort of strength competition. The entrants don’t look particularly strong and we don’t see anyone throw or lift anything so I may be way off with my interpretation of what’s going on. Though there are lots of people who shouldn’t be in lycra prancing about the stage, in lycra.

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There’s been a power cut and water leak in our hotel since we left earlier, apparently. We have a note stuck under our door saying we have to be moved. We get an upgrade to a suite which looks like the maintenance guy has rushed out the door just before we arrived; television on the floor, wires hanging from the wall mount and the table beneath, dusty and strewn with debris. The view from our room is spectacular though. Silver linings and all that.

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We can’t manage a heavy Belgian meal tonight so we treat ourselves to some gyōza and Tokyo noodles in a nearby noodle bar before tasting a load of beer in Little Delirium. Three beers, 250ml each, for €6.50. It’s a pretty good way to get smashed. Orla can’t face anymore Belgian beer either, so she sticks to what she sees as a more palatable gin and tonic. We spot the rooftop bar and garden of our hotel from the street below and decide we’ll have a go of that. Upon our attempt to access, we’re informed the entrance fee is €10 each. We chuckle at the misunderstanding and explain we’re staying in the hotel and show the lady our keys before she confirms ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s still €10’. Ah, that’s lovely. We have pretty much the same view from our room, so, no thanks.

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Day 4 – to Brugge

Our hotel is about 200 metres from the train station, so hopefully we should be able to find it. Though, upon exiting the lobby, there is absolutely no sight of a train station! Orla asks why we hadn’t, until now, walked this direction from the hotel. As we pass the gathered drunks drinking around the trees at 10am, the question answers itself.

Less than an hour later, we’re in Brugge. I’ve been reliably informed that the Dutch name of Brugge is the most accurate spelling despite the signs everywhere stating the alternative Bruges. A stunning little town, no matter how you spell it. If only I wasn’t dragging a suitcase over the cobbles in the soaring heat! We grab a fucking fabulous bagel in Ginger Bread Coffee and Tea House and then hop on a canal boat for a whip around the waterways of this pretty place. Everywhere you look is so beautiful. The canal boat trip is about €8 and definitely worth the fee for the alternative views.

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We have trouble finding De Halve Maan Brewery but eventually, with the help of Google images we discover it, blatantly obvious off a small square we’re standing in at the time and just to our left. You’d think we’d been nowhere with the effort it took to track down a pretty popular tourist attraction. The beer is some of the best we’ve had so far, which says a lot. We start to taper off, tiredness sets in so we make our way back to the Hotel Navarra to chill out for a while and take in a swim in the pool, which occupies what must have been the cellar at some point. Very cool.

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The population of Brugge must halve at night. The streets gradually got busier and busier from the moment we arrived to the time we escaped to the hotel. Then, at around 7, when we left the hotel again the streets were practically empty. I’ve never seen such a dramatic drop in populous.

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Day 5 – Brugge

You can hear the bells chime regularly from the nine churches here. Nine churches for a population of about 22,000 in the main urban area. They’re pretty to look at, but that’s a wee bit mad all the same.

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The big plan for the day is to hire bikes to allow us to go further afield and maybe see some of not so central Brugge. Our attempt to operate a tandem has people stopping, staring and laughing at us in the street. We’re in such hysterics that we have to abandon the idea altogether and opt for the regular kind of bike. After that we have trouble finding breakfast or even a cup of coffee and have to come back toward the centre. After our coffee and couque au chocolat (pain au chocolat) we’re good to go exploring. We cover fifteen kilometres in no time at all; see the old gates of Kruispoort, Gentpoort and Ezelpoort, some windmills and a few really interesting old canal boats. Definitely worth getting out of the centre on a Saturday afternoon. The place is mobbed by the time we get back. The outer limits of the city were a pleasure; relaxed, beautiful and welcoming.

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Day 6 – Brugge and back to Dublin

The return journey commences with breakfast in Petra Rosseel. Avocado toast with fried egg and bacon. Tasty shit. We walk around Brugge one last time, stumbling on a fairly large cheese market and even catch a glimpse of who I assume is the head of Le Guide du Fromage Belgique in his ceremonial robes and giant hat. The place is wedged and it appears like the crowd are shuffling around the stalls in one long queue. All very orderly. Sitting next to the canal having a look through our photos we decide we’re done in Brugge and make the decision to head back to the airport a little early to watch Dublin beat Tyrone and claim their fourth all Ireland win in a row.

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We just about make the train, with about two hours to spare. Ridiculously, when it arrives I move so quick to get on I leave my bottle of water rolling down the platform and have to hop off to grab it. Jumping back on, just in time as the train buzzes to signify its departure.

At the airport, and everyone having boarded the plane back to Dublin, it takes Ryanair twenty four minutes to load the cabin bags they took off people at the gate. After every passenger had taken their seat or was just about to. This is their attempt to speed things up apparently. Two people, manually carrying bags to the hold from the jet bridge a couple of bags at a time. Even the cabin crew are a bit perturbed by the whole sham. C’est le voyage!

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