One day in Brussels: Waffles and wonder in Belgium's capital city
My trip to Brussels did not begin the way most of my international travels do. Firstly, I was taking a train, not a plane. And it was going under the sea. But even before that, I was taking a taxi.
I'd been in London for only a few months, but already my day-to-day interactions with cars had changed from how-I-get-anywhere to those-things-I-have-to-watch-for-before-crossing-the-street. My life was Oyster cards and permissive beeps, red busses and cramped tubes deep under the earth. But this early in the morning, there were no trains, and my transport app jokingly suggested I spend over an hour of my life and dozens of stops on two different busses.
Uber it was.
As we sailed through central London's weirdly empty streets (there is no bustle at 4am on a Saturday morning), the strangeness of this event was underscored further. I would have breakfast in Belgium. But first I needed coffee at St Pancras.
All aboard the Eurostar
The reason I was up before dawn on a Saturday? We were off to see a band whose London gig sold out before we could grab a ticket. Brussels was the only European date that fell on a weekend. The tour schedule decided my travels.
Grasping my soy flat white, I waited for the train that would take me under the English Channel and across countries. My last (and only) experience with the Eurostar was when I was sixteen, travelling from Paris to London with a high school tour group. I had wondered if you could see fish from the tunnel, and if the ocean would reclaim it just as I passed through. It was a nope on both counts.
This time, I opened Google Maps and watched as our little blue dot left London, venturing south west through parts of England I didn't recall. The darkness of the tunnel was replaced by bright farmland, little towns with pointy-tipped churches, and a message from my cellphone provider welcoming me to France. I would be in three countries today.
Bienvenue á Bruxelles
Arriving at Bruxelles-Midi so early on a weekend was an experience in itself. The streets around the station looked like they were still recovering from the night before, with hardly anyone out and about outside the city centre. Following an on-the-go Trip Advisor search, we headed to Kaffabar, a café with English signage, slow coffee and good reviews.
When it came time to order, I hesitated. What language should I speak? Should I try French or stick with English? How do I know if someone speaks Flemish? Do I even remember any Dutch from my trip to Amsterdam?
Fortunately, the barista was quite able to understand my order in any language, so I happily took a seat street-side and waited for my flat white and vegan coconut cookie. Around us, Brussels started waking up. More people started arriving in search of caffeine, and foreign tourists with wheelie bags missioned determinedly past us in the direction of the city centre. Sufficiently fueled, we joined them.
The walk up to the Grand Place was not a quick one - not in distance, but in time. I kept stopping to take photos, investigate little shops, and marvel at architecture and street art. There was a rainbow-coloured zebra crossing leading to a cute gift shop and a Belgian beer store with branded memorabilia and varieties of brew I'd never heard of.
When we did round the corner and pop up in Brussels' postcard-perfect square, a car drove past us to deposit a poofy-dressed bride on the steps of the town hall. Minutes later, the area was coated in wedding guests and tourists trying to get a snap of the special event.
The Grand Place was a photographer's dream - so many ornate buildings dusted in gold! This was not the Brussels I was expecting... I had imagined the city that served as the head quarters of the EU to be quite bland and official, not filled with filigree and cobblestones.
We then began a slow wander down towards Le Bistro, a Belgian café overlooking the medieval gate of Porte de Hal. The route meandered away from the Grand Place, through little squares filled with Saturday markets, and then down Rue Haute. Filled with cute shops and cuter street art (hello, lady bugs!), I had to stop myself from loading up on art prints, terrazzo plant pots and quirky books dreamed up by Brussels' creatives. I was in my element... and we hadn't even got as far as checking into our Airbnb yet.
Wanders to and from Ixelles
As the day wore on, the walking continued - this time along the ring road that encloses central Brussels. The creative boutiques gave way to more traditional chain stores. But, dotted with luxury chocolate and jewellery shops, this was more Avenue des Champs-Élysées than your average European high street.
Street food stalls selling waffles tempted me... I had yet to eat any. Perhaps I could stop and check off Belgian waffles and chocolate in one go? My fiancé had already inhaled a pot of mussels and Belgian beer at the café. I had helped with the fries (yes, French fries are originally from Belgium), but he was still ahead on the quest to try local food. But didn't I want my first chocolates to be from somewhere more special?
After dropping off our bags at our Airbnb, we headed out into the streets of the suburb of Ixelles and found a Neuhaus chocolatier. After wandering around in awe of all the beautifully crafted truffles and gift boxes, I waited for the shop assistant to finish helping another customer, preparing my request in French in my mind. She turned around, asked if she could help, and my fiancé piped up in English. Drat! Opportunity lost.
It turned out to be worth it, as she offered us a selection from their line of dainty delicacies designed to be enjoyed with coffee. I would not have understood the instructions as well if they were in French - we were to sip some black coffee, take a tiny bite of chocolate, and then another sip. She explained how the chocolate was created to bring out different flavours before and after the drink. This was my kind of place!
After a careful selection of individual chocolates, we ventured out to find somewhere to enjoy them. We were in an area home to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the Royal Palace, and a network of narrow streets snaking off in all directions. We eventually ended up in the tiny, ornate gardens of the Square of Petit Sablon - filled with statues, a fountain, dramatic landscaped angles and a dedicated caretaker who shooed visitors off the grass.
Not quite done with the eating, we stopped off at a little deli called Claire Fontaine near Notre Dame du Sablon (an incredibly ornate Gothic church). Finally, I could use my well-practiced French phrase: Je suis végétarienne!
The owners understood and I could see them mentally running down the list of things I could eat - would I like this salad? This dish with the lentils? Yes, yes, a bit of everything please. It was all enjoyed on a little bistro table out on the curb, facing the cathedral and the weekend market taking place at its feet.
I was ready for the gig.
A (short and) sweet goodbye
After being bathed in concert confetti and taking a tram and then a rickety metro home for the night, we needed to get going early if we wanted to do anything before our train back to London. Bags packed, key returned, we went on another walk to the place we started at - the Grand Place. There was a café nearby that did vegan waffles. And beer.
The Sister ticked all the boxes - plant-based food for me, beer tasting for the boy. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule, the tastings required a minimum of two people, and I don't drink beer. But I could take one for the team. I ordered the fruitiest lambic beer I could find on the menu, took about two sips, and went back to my pancakes. Sorry, but this team mate plays the wrong sport!
While cramming in as much as we could in the dying minutes of our Belgian trip was admirable, we had to leave. Now. We still had to get back to Bruxelles-Midi station, go through passport control, and catch the Eurostar. It was now too late for us to walk. Uber it was.
After a frantic rush to the streets that weren't pedestrian-only, we climbed in the taxi and relaxed. We would make it. But as we got nearer, the driver started saying something. My brain whirred with French vocab. He couldn't drop us close? They had blocked off the area around the station to cars? Were we okay with a short walk? Oui, just get us there!
We made the train. Settled in my window seat, clutching a warm waffle from the station's coffee shop, I was grateful for the day. It was possibly the shortest city trip of my life, but I tried my best: I saw as many sites as I could, I got some handmade souvenirs, I tried the food (and now had no need to eat ever again), I walked the streets, I spoke the language.
There was still so much more to see, but Brussels was less of a mystery.