First off I want to mention that last Wednesday I finally met Dan (gulch), who is one of my favorite people to converse with online. He and his lovely wife Gill met Max and I at The Fighting Cocks in Kingston where we had a few drinks before tracking down some food, ending up at Carluccio's since we weren't sure where else to go (we usually go into London when we eat out so our knowledge of Kingston restaurants is slim). I actually ended up talking to Gill most of the night as I knew virtually nothing about her previously. It was an enjoyable (if brief) meeting.
Now, on to Belgium. Max's mother, Jackie, was originally going to throw a party to celebrate her 60th birthday/retirement, but her invited guests kept changing plans and many couldn't come, so she decided to forget about it, cancelled the party, and booked a weekend holiday for her, Philip, Max and I. She wanted to take the Eurostar to Paris, but that was booked so she tried Bruges with the same results. Brussels was the last choice, but as they had never been before they decided to give it a try. The only tickets left were for very early Friday morning, so we had to get up at 4:30am and made our way to Waterloo before the sun rose. It was my first Eurostar trip and all of the security checks were much like an airport. I had an unusually cheery young French policeman stamp my passport. Settling into my seat I exchanged several sms messages with my dad back in Anacortes, then fell asleep for most of the journey under the English Channel and across the French and Belgian countryside at 186 mph (I've seen it before, I knew I wasn't missing much).
train to waterloo @ dawn
We arrived in Brussels at 11:00am local time and navigated the metro system, finally arriving near our hotel on Rue du Commerce. Jackie had booked 2 rooms at a 4-star hotel, but when we arrived we discovered that the woman who took the booking couldn't find a vacancy so she upgraded us to their nearby sister hotel which was 5-star, free of cost. So we walked down to the luxurious Stanhope and checked in.
Parc de Bruxelles
After checking in we wandered through the Parc de Bruxelles and around the city centre. When I lived in Antwerp in 97' I only passed through Brussels on a few occasions and I had the impression that it was a fairly drab and modern city. That is true in part (sadly much of the Art Nouveau architecture was torn down by city planners in the 1960s), but many old buildings remain and I admit I was pleasantly surprised with the city as a whole, even though I didn't think it had quite the warmth and beauty of Antwerp.
Grand Place and Galerie Saint-Hubert
We searched for moules, artfully dodging the waiters in the l'Ilot Sacre calling us into their empty restaurants and went straight to Aux Armes de Bruxelles, which as we discovered is one of the few restaurants in the city centre that Bruxellois actually frequent, albeit mostly in business suits. My entree was the Fondus au Fromage (cheese croquettes) and the Moules Spéciales (marinière), pommes frites (mussels and frites, of course. Mussels were perfectly cooked), dessert the Créme caramel (one of the best I've eaten, much like homemade), and an espresso.
Philip and Jackie, cheese croquette, moules, and créme caramel @ Aux Armes de Bruxelles
After getting our mussel fix we walked through the Grand Place and the Galerie Saint-Hubert, with it's hanging cow-riding dragon sculpture (or is it a dragon carrying a cow? why? The questions abound). Walking along Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potageres we stumbled upon A la Morte Subite by accident, so we stopped in for a drink. Naturally, I ordered a kriek. The atmosphere was one of faded 1920s opulence and I was particularly bemused by the two old women sitting next to us, enjoying their afternoon beer and chattering away about local gossip in French and Flemish.
A la Morte Subite
We walked through the Cathédrale Saint-Michel et Sainte-Gudule.
Towards evening we strolled back through the Parc de Bruxelles to our hotel to rest before meeting my friend, the ever-beautiful Annick and her partner Faz at the Zebra bar on St. Géry (her suggestion), in St. Cathérine. I know Annick from when we lived Antwerp and we've kept in touch online for the past 7 years. It was wonderful seeing her again and meeting Faz, who happily chatted away with Philip, Jackie, and Max about the Middle East and the Qu'ran while Annick and I caught up with each other. We mentioned how creepy we found the metro and she told us that they never go on the metro at night because it's too dangerous, with roving packs of gangs. She said she rarely feels safe even during the day by herself, whereas she feels perfectly safe in London and Paris. We asked what else we should check out and she recommended Le Sablon which is an antique market area like the one in Antwerp. Several hours and drinks later we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet up again next time they visit London.
I enjoyed the Zebra bar, it has a relaxed atmosphere and they played excellent music (even if it was too loud).
Annick and Faz recommended the South Indian restaurant and the Thai/Vietnamese restaurant across the street from the Zebra bar, so we tried the Indian, which was closed, so we went to the Thai/Vietnamese. I had the crab soup, which I think was more accurately "krab soup", if you get my meaning. My main course was the red duck curry, which fortunately was delicious, possibly even better than the duck curry at Sri Thai in Soho.
The next morning we went down to the dining room for the inclusive breakfast. Expecting a simple continental I was surprised to see tables full of food from smoked salmon, fresh mozzarella, crepes, fruit etc. to the makings of a full cooked breakfast.
We explored the city further and found Le Sablon and spent time perusing old-world maps, newspapers, and prints. We walked further to Place du Jeu de Balle and found the tat market. I have rarely seen more tat concentrated in one place. There were items such as a set of 5 poker dice with 1 die missing, broken cameras, a plastic mirror with poorly-glued on seashells, figurines of sunbathing pigs in bikinis.. you name it. Whenever I see stuff like this I can't help picturing huge smoke-belching factories churning out endless tat, supplying the apparent world demand for tat. A particular favorite of mine was the taxidermied cat grotesquely positioned to attack the taxidermied starling on a tree branch. The fact that someone spent hours of their life and resources to stuff these animals and comically position them just boggles my mind. The man saw me photograph it with a smile, which he seemed to interpret as a positive sign so he tried to sell it to me for 5 €. I declined and scurried off before he pressed the issue.
tat market in Place du Jeu de Balle
& one for The Mirror Project
We perused some used books that were insanely over-priced and as we flipped through a book of old Paris postcards we noticed the bookseller, an old woman, shuffle closer to us. When we put the book down she huffily positioned it a few inches to it's exact previous position, muttering in French, "You have to put them back just so otherwise no one will buy them!" It wasn't difficult to see the crazy glinting in her eyes, so we moved on.
Philip wanted to go to the Cantillon brewery beer museum so we walked towards it in the direction the map said and we inadvertently stumbled into one of the roughest areas of the city, part of the Middle Eastern district. Areas of it looked nice lined with cafes and Halal butchers, but we took a turn down a road past the Belgian equivalent of council estates and realized we shouldn't be there. Suddenly we came across this gem: a shit-covered television (you've been warned). It was so disgustingly hilarious that I had to take a photo. I think someone should submit it to the Saatchi gallery. As Philip quipped, "It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase `there's nothing but shit on the telly.'"
We finally arrived at the Cantillon brewery which was full of people. Cantillon is the last traditional family-run brewery left in Brussels. They brew Lambic beers like kriek (cherry), rosé de gambrinus (raspberry), gueuze (fermented), vigneronne (white grapes), fou'foune (apricot), grand cru bruoscella (aged in oak barrels), iris (malt, pale ale), and faro (added caramel and brown sugar). After exploring the brewery we were given a glass of gueuze and another of our choice. The gueuze was better than the Lindeman's I ordered at the Zebra bar with Annick and Faz. I then tried the faro which was very sweet, and sips of kriek and rosé. I loved the kriek, as it is brewed traditionally it is less sweet than the modern variations. It reminded me of the tart pie cherries I used to eat from our tree as a child.
We bought 3 large bottles of gueuze, kriek, and rosé.
Finding a better route on the map back to the city centre we walked south until we realized we were back in St. Cathérine. We went into the Tintin en Ville and then stopped in the Zebra bar for a drink and lunch. I had the pear, brie, and reduced balsamic vinegar panini with a rocket and parmesan salad and for a laugh we all (except for sensible Jackie) ordered Westmalle tripel (9.5 %), which I drank too fast and became mildly merry while zoning out to Portishead.
Tintin en Ville, Zebra bar
Still buzzed we left the Zebra and walked into the centre, looking for Boutique de Tintin. Just as we entered Boutique de Tintin a man who seemed incredibly familiar walked directly past me, exiting the shop. I suddenly realized that he may have been heuteistmeintag, as I knew he was supposed to be in the city visiting from California that weekend. I told Jackie I would be right back and I went out into the street to see if it was him, but he was gone. Max bought a Tintin poster and we walked down the street to a beer shop to buy some glasses. As I stood at the counter I turned around and the same man was looking at me.
heuteistmeintag: "Naomi... Max?"
*stare at each other in shock*
heuteistmeintag wrote about the encounter too.
We chatted for awhile and mused at the chances of running into each other. I wished we had time to have a drink or something, but we made an agreement to meet up when he comes to London in May.
Walking back to the hotel we stopped at a small family-run chocolatier where I selected a bunch of different chocolates, bringing back memories of gael and I slowly savouring our Belgian chocolates in Antwerp years ago. Heavenly.
in our hotel room, cocktail bar on Boulevard de Waterloo
Back at the hotel we received a restaurant recommendation from a local. He said that it was very much a local's restaurant that serves traditional Belgian food. He also warned us not to judge the restaurant by its location and appearance. As we left the hotel it was beginning to rain so we grabbed our umbrellas and walked down the Boulevard de Waterloo which is lined with designer stores such as Gucci, Armani, Versaci, etc. until we came to the Palais de Justice and walked down a completely deserted narrow street, wondering if we had been sent there to be mugged. Finally we found the restaurant, Au Stekerlapatte. There was only one visible window that I noticed, straight into the kitchen where a number of chefs were busily preparing. We were some of the first there at opening time, following a couple down a long dark corridor. Suddenly we wondered if we entered the wrong door and were actually entering someone's apartment, but then we found the door and opened it up to an absolutely immense restaurant. It was a labyrinth of dark rooms filled with tables and another floor full upstairs. The tables were covered in blue plastic and it was completely empty except for us and the couple. We wondered what kind of dining experience we were in for.
An outstanding one, as it turned out. The menu was unpretentious traditional Franco-Belgian. For aperitifs Jackie and I had kirs while Philip and Max tried the jenever after which we all ordered Floreffe bruns, which reminded me of Young's Chocolate Stout. My starter was a Cheese charlotte on a bed of buttered spinach and mustard hollandaise sauce, which was unusual and good. Philip had the Black pudding with carmelised apples which he said was some of the best black pudding he had ever eaten. I figured my first try of black pudding should be the best, so I tried a bite of his and actually liked it. I ordered a seasonal specialty for my main course, the Roasted guinea fowl in a kriek and cherry sauce which was perfection. Max had the Veal ragu with frites, Philip the Jambonneau (ham-knuckle cooked in ale), and Jackie the Roast rabbit in abbey ale. I had never eaten rabbit either, so I tried a bite of hers and it was delicious. Everything was cooked perfectly. By the end of the meal and the substantial Belgian portions I was far too full for a heavy dessert, so I ordered the pear sorbet. Overall one of the best meals I've had and a wonderful find, exactly what we had been looking for.
roast guinea fowl with kriek and cherries @ Au Stekerlapatte
We chatted for awhile to the friendly Belgian family we sat next to and the little girl told us to "please come again." By the time we left the restaurant it was completely full, not an empty table in the place.
A few drinks in us we walked to Le Sablon. Philip and Max were being hilarious, acting out the quintessential British gentlemen in exaggerated accents while gesticulating with their brollies, putting Jackie (a French woman) and I (an American woman) in stitches laughing. By the time we found a bar to have a few more drinks in my sides were hurting. It was a tiny bar, consisting of only a few tables and a fireplace. It reminded me of the bars I used to go to in Antwerp. We were the only customers and I sipped my Leffe while warming up by the fire. The bartender was friendly and eventually the tables filled with locals, several of whom seemed to know the bartender well.
bar in Le Sablon
Well sozzled we walked back to the hotel. As it was late Jackie went up to bed while Max, Philip and I stayed in the hotel bar for an hour or so, where I sipped a yummy martini bianco as we talked.
Went to bed late and took some photos for world_tv. I had some difficulty getting myself out of bed at 7am the next morning after 2 days of nearly non-stop drinking and very little sleep, but I still had breakfast in the dining room and managed to scribble out a few postcards to my parents. We caught the 10am Eurostar back to London.
(I'd like to state for the record that I managed to completely miss the Mannekin-pis.)
I would certainly return to Brussels for a day and a night, go to Au Stekerlapatte and Zebra again, see Annick, and thoroughly explore the museums next time, maybe on our way to Antwerp, Bruges, and Gent.
Nomi, I've been curious about something: What's your writing process like? Do you write in a handwritten journal first, and then type all this up, or do you just reconstruct the whole thing when you finally sit down at the computer? I have to admit I'm extremely envious of the way you write these entries. I never seem able to write about my life with such detail and with a coherent organization. I don't seem to have the right kind of memory for this kind of writing. When it's fiction (i.e. when I'm making it up out of thin air), I'm a bit better at creating verisimilitude, but then when I reread what I've written, even then, it just all seems like illusion...tossing in a vibrant detail or two so that the reader won't notice the overall paucity of the description.
Or, to put it another way: HELP!
Also, if there was ever someone in the world who might convert me away from vegetarianism, it would be you.
That's the reason why i read Nomis journal. It's entertaining but also so very well written. Long coherent sentences and proper use of the word 'like'. Most refreshing. I'm more than a bit jealous. If i wrote about my trip to anywhere it would be so boring.
1. I wish I had known it was Jackie's 60th. I would've said something when I was chatting with her and Philip.
2. That Thai/Vietnamese place across from the Zebra...it wouldn't be La Papaye Verte would it? We had lunch there on Saturday and Kevin had the red duck curry too. I can't imagine there being more than one Thai/Vietnamese place in the city, though...
3. Funny that I walked right past you @ the Tintin shop. It is very out of characters for me to walk past a redhead and not take notice. I guess I was feeling a little claustrophobic from the huge line of people buying Tintin stuff in there.
3b. Glad to know you were drunk when I ran into you ;-).
4. Good of you to miss the pissing boy. The only reason I saw it was that I came across it by accident. It was surrounded with people. Are they all pedophiles with a golden shower fetish? Am I? It boggles the mind.
That's okay, Jackie's birthday was the previous week, last weekend was just a combined celebration of the two.
The Thai/Vietnamese restaurant wasn't La Papaye Verte, but there were a load of other T/V restaurants, even on the same street. The interior of the one we went to was a bizarre mish-mash of stuff like chairs, old paintings, etc. plastered onto the wall.
It is such a funny coincidence, you were literally a few inches from me when we passed in the doorway. That place was claustrophobic and overpriced. Why is the rocket from Objectif Lune so expensive? Silly tourists.
I wasn't drunk, just happily buzzed. :) I would have invited you to have a drink or dinner if it had been just Max and I, but we already spent the previous night with our friends and figured we should spend time with just Philip and Jackie since they paid for our trip there. At least you're coming to London in May.
The Mannekin-pis is a phenomenon I will never understand.
It wasn't until after we parted ways that I realized we'd hardly talked to each other, but it was great getting to know Gill a little better.
I can't believe you took the towpath through Ham, as Max said when I read that to him, "Holy fuck, that's a long walk!" :) I'm glad you made it back alright otherwise.
I know what you mean, I feel the same way when people visit Seattle or London and mention all these cool places they went to and I think, "hey wait, why didn't I know about that?" What were you doing in Brussels, did you grow up there?
One thing I try to do when travelling anywhere is to always ask the locals where they go.. that is if they don't mind divulging their secrets to a lowly tourist. ;)
I think it's funny the Mannekin-pis is only a few feet high, you'd think it was gigantic by the amount of fuss made over it.
looks like you guys had a blast! great narrative, thanks for sharing. and that mannekin-pis link had me laughing out loud. i emailed it to my sister, with whom i sat and stared in amazement at the thronging crowds around this silly statue back in 2000.
maybe it says more about me, but that TV rocks my socks (whatever that means).
The Art Nouveau architecture in Brussels has always appealed to me and, even though you say much of it has been demolished in the '60s, I still would love to see what is left - I've been lead to believe that it's architecture still makes for an idiosyncratic city. Your report of the subway does worry me, somewhat, though. It will be interesting to experience it first-hand.
that tv.. we passed it and after I got over the initial shock and laughter I had to go back and photograph it. It was obviously a person who did it, no dog could accomplish that feat.
What I saw of the Art Nouveau architecture was beautiful, when I go back I want to make a point of finding and photographing as much of it as I can. I loved the hidden bits that we'd come across; a door here, a window pane there and a few bars still have their original Art Nouveau interiors.
I wouldn't worry about the metro during the day, but definitely steer clear of it at night. Although, from what we experienced, the metro isn't even necessary to get around the city (except to and from the airport/train station). The first night we took it from near our hotel to Ste. Catherine, nw of the centre, which involved changing trains a few times and ended up taking about the same amount of time as it would have to simply walk. Pretty much everything is within walking distance, so we never bothered with the metro again.
as always, a lovely entry.
through your pictures, brussels seems like such gorgeous place! but i remember it as being quite drab. to be fair, i was only there for a few hours. i thought the grand place was beautiful but the rest of the city (what i saw) was dingy and drab, all brown and white and gray.
i guess its just a matter of focusing on the small beautiful, interesting things. your pictures are outstanding! thanks :)