Back in December, Grace and I headed over to Brussels for a few days. It’s a city that I haven’t been to in almost ten years, and with its reputation for beer, chocolate, and chips, it was definitely somewhere to return to. We got some cheap flights and booked up for a long weekend as Christmas rapidly approached.
I should have posted this ages ago, but I stupidly tried to lump two different cameras worth of four different kinds of film into one post – and actually getting them all developed and put together was a bigger task than expected. Finally, here’s a slice of Winter in summer time. Not that the weather is all that different in Scotland between the two seasons mind you.
Our visit happened just a few weeks after Brussels was ‘locked down‘ in response to the attacks in Paris. As a result, there was a strong police and army presence throughout the city.
It was strange to see so many soldiers openly carrying beefy weapons in the streets, and it made me take stock a bit. The relationship between the state and the people is very different in mainland Europe from the UK, and for all of its flaws, the deployment of the army with guns like this (outside of airports) just wouldn’t be acceptable back home. (Ireland’s a different story). No matter what the perceived risk, there are some lines that just shouldn’t be crossed. Personally, I would be opposed to this kind of response in Glasgow in a similar situation.
Edit: I drafted this post before the attacks in Brussels, and it made me consider whether or not I should re-word this portion, but I’ve decided not to. It saddened me deeply to see what happened unfold, but it still occurred in the face of all of the heightened security. It is a horrible reality that there is no way to prevent attacks like this, which is partly why they instil such fear. Despite that, we have to be careful not to surrender our freedoms in response.
As it was, despite the various personnel and vehicles that were littered everywhere, the atmosphere was laid back and friendly.
We were staying in a big AirBnB rental flat next to Saint Catherine Square, which overlooked one of the main Christmas markets.
I’m not usually all that big a fan of Christmas markets – at least not in the UK. In my humble opinion they tend to be tiny, crowded, and filled with overpriced pish that you could get for cheaper somewhere else. However, the Europeans know how to do these things right.
As well as loads of different cabins selling all sorts of cool bits and pieces, there was a ton of places to buy food and drink – even fondue.
We particularly liked this barrel shaped place.
The market was a nice place to hang out and have a drink and take some pictures, which we did a couple of times a day. The vin chaud – hot mulled wine – was amazing. The white version was probably the best, and something I’ve never tried before.
and what sort of crazy, twisted merry-go-round is this? Amazing.
The market seemed to stretch on for miles. Even where the main bits came to an end, a whole host of different side streets were lined with more stuff. The Belgians take this Christmas market thing seriously.
One of the things that I really liked about Brussels was that they had closed off one of their main city centre streets to traffic, completely pedestrianising it. Instead of cars, it was filled with cyclists, people making music, and hanging out – which had a really strange (but great) feeling because all of the traffic signs were still up. I had wondered if this was just for the market, but apparently it was permanent, which is pretty awesome. I remarked online that I wish this sort of thing would happen in the UK, and people responded pointing to Sauchiehall Street/Buchanan Street in Glasgow. That is all very well and good, but the chances of any major British city giving over any central street completely to pedestrians nowadays seems pretty slim.
One night we sat on the steps of one of the old buildings, eating chips, watching people go by below, with no traffic, and a good atmosphere. It was pretty blissful, and in my notes from the time, I’ve written: ‘This is how Europe should be.’
We obviously had to hit up the infamous Mannekin Pis, which Grace didn’t believe was a real thing when I told her about it beforehand.
It’s pretty amusing to see so many serious looking tourists crowded around a tiny statue of a wee boy taking a piss.
I’m not sure what Mannekin Pis says about Belgian culture, but I like it.
The pissing concept wasn’t restricted to just the infamous Mannekin Pis though.
Yes, that is a statue.
There was definitely some other weird sights to be seen around the place, which I liked… although I’m not really sure that a pissing chip is the best logo for a chain. Apparently they are a fairly well thought of operation as well.
I hope we were on Belgian TV.
I made a conscious effort to try and take more street pictures than usual, to give a feel for the place, and I’m fairly pleased with how they all came out – even if it did take me 6 months to get them online.
We also took a trip out to the edge of the city to see the Atomium, in all of its bizarre glory.
Complete with requisite military presence…
There isn’t a whole lot around there except the Atomium though, so we headed back into the centre for some of the real highlight of visiting Belgium…
Belgium is famous for making some of the best beer in the world, with a staggering number of different traditional breweries. Many years ago I got sick drinking cheap lager, and stopped drinking beer completely. Back then the choice we had in Scotland was… well… piss poor, and a trip to Brussels opened my eyes to what good beer could be like. It changed my perception on the drink so much that I successfully managed to petition a few local pubs to stock Leffe – which was a huge achievement at the time.
Naturally, there was great beer available literally everywhere – and I drank as much of it as I could get away with. Poor Grace had to put up with me seeking it out, as she isn’t really a big beer drinker.
We visited the famous Cafe Delerium, which stocks thousands of beers – apparently the biggest selection in the world. As experiences go, it was a bit of a mixed bag. There are multiple different bars that share the same name, in what I can only imagine is a bid to capitalise on the huge number of tourists that visit the area. Some of them are definitely not beer bars though, and act more as trashy student cocktail places – but that isn’t immediately clear if you aren’t familiar with the area already.
When you get into Delerium there are small plastic menus available that list about 20 odd beers, which was pretty disappointing. I had dreamt of some huge phonebook-thick catalogue, and it wasn’t until our second attempt to find the actual beer bar that I discovered you had to specifically ask for the extended menu (which really is as thick as a phone book).
The selection was indeed vast, and we sat at the bar for a while, watching the place fill up. We tasted some really nice beers that we would never find back home, including a wine bottle sized vintage beer that they were doing a deal on, and that had been aged for over 10 years. The guy behind the bar looked at us when I ordered it and warned us that it was ‘very dark’, and were we sure we wanted it? I was pretty offended at first. Could he not see my beard?! Afterwards it became clear why he had asked though, as steady streams of young, loud people came up to ask for dumb things which they then turned their noise up at. One guy asked for something ‘sour and fruity’, to which the barman suggested something. The guy then pointed at some completely different (and far more generic) option, which the barman told him was very sweet, but not sour at all. “Yeah, okay. I’ll take that.” Why bother even asking?! Another girl bought a specific beer, visibly made a face when she tasted it, downed half the bottle, and then left it behind. Eugh.
Grace probably put it best: This was clearly a place that people go to as a destination – because of its reputation and novelty factor, not because they like beer. For that reason, the atmosphere was pretty crap. Its fate was further sealed when a band took to the stage to play Aerosmith covers, and the place went wild.
Time to make a hasty retreat. I wouldn’t be rushing back.
As it turns out, the beer we got (and paid 15 Euros for) was being sold elsewhere for upwards of 70. I appreciated it, that’s for sure.
There are lots of beautiful areas to explore with interesting quirks when you need to get some fresh air (and plenty of spots to stop for more delicious beer).
I really like Brussels. It’s not the first city that springs to mind when you think about travelling somewhere, but it’s got a lot of character.
When I booked this trip, it was just meant to be a few days in Brussels – but it then worked out that we would be travelling to Amsterdam to have Christmas with my parents. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the return flights were booked that I realised it would make way more sense to just get the train – which only took a few hours. Looking at the costs, it didn’t add up to be much more expensive than the bus/train travel would be if we stuck with the original plan (we were going back via Edinburgh) – so we got the train.
It’s always far more pleasant to get the train than fly, and it gave me a chance to shoot some more pictures while we waited.
The journey was extremely easy, and coming from an island, it was a pretty crazy feeling to step off the train after a couple of hours and be in a completely different country, that mentally I would always expect to have to fly to.
Bloody Europe eh? We’re better off not being a part of that mess.
Amsterdam photos will follow soon…