You know that feeling, when you're scrolling through the (seemingly shrinking) list of places we can fly to directly from the North East, and it's all just a bit disappointing: been there, been there, don't want to go there, been there twice... Now there’s a new destination we can fly to for city breaks, and it's a good one: Brussels.
I know what you're thinking: Brussels? If someone mentioned Brussels then asked for five things you associate with the city, most of us would list, 'Moules frites, chocolate, beer, the European Union, and... erm... Can I just say four?’ It lacks the grand, familiar monuments of places like Rome and Paris; it lacks the dazzle of Barcelona and the coolness of Berlin; we expect it to be boringly muted, and beiged up by Europe's bureaucrats. But that was far from my experience.
My wife and I boarded a 5pm Friday night flight from Newcastle Airport and enjoyed a gin and tonic on the way (along with tapenade, spelt bread and chocolate – kudos to the route's operators BMI for their snacks). After arriving at Brussels Airport we got on a train, which took 20 minutes to reach the city centre, and by 8.30pm (local time) we were in our top floor room at the 9Hotel Central, a sharp and modern hotel (staff wear white shirts, black waistcoats and jeans) in the museum district.
We showered, ate our first chocolates and headed out for moules frites (I always tick off the obvious before working around to the unique) in an area called Grand Sablon (the hotel receptionist told us it's where locals eat and drink). We found a nice place, but as we walked through the door the owner rushed over to tell us the kitchen was closed, so we wandered around some more and ended up at a restaurant called L'Entrée Des Artistes. It's not worth dwelling on.
Day two. Okay, this was the big day. We each had a Brussels Card which grants free access to most museums, free travel on public transport, a map and discounts in some restaurants, bars and shops (the cards cost 24 for 24 hours, €36 for 48 hours and €43 for 72 hours), so we grabbed breakfast in the hotel and headed out to start the learning.
Our first stop was the Grand Place, a large cobbled square from which everything else in the city seems to spin off. It's surrounded by grand buildings, and after looking through the guidebook that came with our cards we realised one of the buildings was the Museum of the City of Brussels. Using our Brussels Cards for free admission, we had a look around and very quickly realised that the statue of the boy having a wee is something they're quite proud of in this city: the Mannekin Pis. We headed out of the museum to find it.
We found it, surrounded by cameras, and stayed for about half a second before heading for drink at a nearby bar called Fontainas – recommendation number one. It has outdoor seating and a billion types of beer. More wandering, then lunch, more beer, then we returned to the Grand Place and used our Brussels Cards again to enter the Museum of Belgian Brewers. We read a few bits of blurb about brewing, then skipped the video and went straight for the free beers at the end of the tour, drinking them in the museum's underground pub. In hindsight, this was a boozy trip.
Next was the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate. My wife did that annoying thing of reading everything in the place, while I stood at the window watching the streets fill with men in tiny shorts dancing to techno music, which was being played from enormous speakers. It turned out we were in Brussels during Pride weekend. We finished with the chocolate museum, watched the Pride parade go by, then got changed at the hotel, drank a cocktail and arrived at the highlight of the weekend.
We'd been booked into a restaurant called Cecila – recommendation number two. We didn't know what to expect, but it turned out to be one of those places where the waiter talks you through each dish when it arrives – this is foam something, that's transparent ravioli, this involved a blow-torch, this is caviar (my first ever, and contrary to what I'd heard, it was delicious). We had the three-course option, which included a few amuse bouches, a glass of white, glass of red, and coffee. It was high-end, but comfortable and friendly; dining as an experience. We won't forget it.
After that we headed back out onto the streets to join the party. There were tens of thousands of people across the city, with music being played on dozens of streets, as well as a huge central stage, stalls, and plenty of early drinking casualties. Quite a night, and quite a hangover. The next morning the pastries and coffee at the hotel breakfast failed to rejuvenate us, so we headed to the Parc de Bruxelles for a walk (the trees thankfully hid us from bright sunlight). From there we found the BELvue Museum, housed in a former luxury hotel.
The BELvue is a surprise. It tells the history of Belgium and it was good reminder that this country's story is far from boring: it's only 150 years old, it was formed by revolution, it was responsible for some horrific events in the Congo (which the museum didn't shy away from), and it was invaded by the Germans. Twice. Finally, the displays were rounded off with a display about Belgium's pivotal role in Europe. This is not boring stuff. It's vital, especially now.
Finally, we used our Brussels Cards for the last time to explore the underground chambers of the palaces, entering through the Coudenberg Museum, then for lunch we returned to the restaurant where the kitchen was closed on the first night. The kitchen was open now. We ordered a charcuterie board and red wine, followed by chocolate torte. It was very good.
I'd been pretty small-minded about Brussels before arriving. A city break can really broaden the mind.
Living North flew from Newcastle to Brussels with BMI Regional. To book a flight go to www.bmiregional.com.
We stayed at 9Hotel Central. To book visit www.le9hotel.com.
To book a table at Cecila go to www.restaurantcecila.com.