It started out as a quick walk in Brussels. A couple of streets leading away from the European Parliament. As we flash past a lady carrying her groceries we pick up our pace, overtaking two well dressed gentlemen who had just alighted from an equally well dressed vehicle. Diplomats ? Government officials ? No time to ponder, we’re in a rush. We arrive at the train station, slightly out of breath, but just in time to catch it. We had exactly 7 minutes now to get to Noord Station, and find our bus so that we could get back to our campground. It had been a long day and we really wanted to make that bus as the next one wasn’t for another hour, and it takes an hour to get back to our campground.
Would we make it ?
We’ve made it to the Brussels, the capital of Belgium today. Time to get out and about and experience what this great city has to offer (along with wearing out the soles of my boots….but more on that later !)
What’s to see and do here?
Brussels is an enormous city. It is, after all, the capital of Belgium and the administrative capital of the EU. With Belgium being divided into clear regional and language factions (French speaking Wallonia in the south and Flemish speaking Flanders in the north), Brussels is the only official bilingual city in all of Belgium.
Brussels is old, like much of Europe. It’s where art nouveau buildings abound and Gothic architecture is the centre of attention in areas such as the Grote Markt. Cobbled laneways, opera houses and stock exchanges that are still glorious and easy to imagine how they looked in their hey-day. Modern shops are intermingled amongst them all, making up the usual blend of old and new that is visible to the naked eye in any large city. Then there’s the EU precinct. Ultra modern, the gleaming glass stands tall and imposing over the surrounding area. Bright, shiny, perfectly coiffed…….like many of the government officials and diplomats who swan in and out of these buildings.
There’s no end to the places to eat, drink or buy chocolate either.
Like anywhere we go. The best way of exploring once you get into the towns is walking. We did an “old town walking tour”, using maps and other information we had gathered about Brussels. Let’s take a look at what we managed to see in a day.
Need to know where to stay in Brussels? Check out these Brussels hotels.
Grote Markt (Grand Place)
A Grote Markt can be found in many of the towns in Belgium, but this one is on a much grander scale. The Grand Place, is a huge square in the city, tucked away and accessible by foot. This UNESCO protected square is landmarked by the incredible Gothic Town Hall, and around 450 guildhall buildings. There’s a cafe vibe here too, and of course plenty of vendors trying to sell the latest souvenir to the tens of thousands of tourists who walk through this square each year.
I confess to never tiring of these Gothic structures. I do believe that I have found myself a favourite type of period architecture. How could you think a building like that below is anything but amazing and beautiful?
Cartoons and comic strips
Brussels has a significant role in cartoon history. Whilst most of it is before my time, and I confess to having no real interest in these cartoons, it was still interesting to learn a little about them.
For those who remember Tintin, Daltons, Corentin and Lucky Luke, Brussels is where it originated. So too did the Smurfs (the only one I have really heard of).
If you avert your eyes to the sky when you are walking around, their love of comics will be plain to see. Around 50 buildings carry paintings similar to the one below, depicting many of these famous faces.
Eat real Belgian waffles
When in Brusssels, for if you don’t you will most likely be the only one who isn’t. Like frites, waffles are a Belgian staple, and they don’t celebrate them anywhere else as much as I have seen here. Whether you be at a restaurant, cafe or just standing in the street, freshly made waffles with any number of toppings on them are available.
We settled for a civilised version at the Food Factory Cafe. A slightly uninteresting name but a wonderful cafe over three levels, offering a view out over the pedestrianised area in the main streets of Brussels.
Light, fluffy and crunchy on the outside, accompanied by cream, ice cream, and of course Belgian chocolate. I was in heaven, and thanking my lucky stars that I had elected to have my own plate of waffles, as opposed to sharing them with my husband.
Below is an example of the small shops that exist in the city. Their windows are full of waffles and their many toppings, enticing those who pass by to stop for a bite. At €1 for a plain one and a few euro more for the toppings, they are hard to beat for a quick fix. I absolutely loved the customers lining up around the shop, once they had bought their waffle of choice, to wolf it down in amongst their fellow waffle aficionados.
Eat traditional flemish carbonade
Because all of our travels revolve around food and trying new things, we couldn’t wait to try a carbonade. We’d had something similar before, after all, carbonade is like boeuf bourguignon, but made with beer instead of red wine. But, there’s nothing quite like eating it where it is a local specialty.
Despite the cold, we found ourselves an outside table at Grand Cafe le Bruxelles and ordered up two bowls of the piping hot casserole. With a view of the Brussels Stock Exchange, we devoured the melt-in-your-mouth soft beef, with a rich, hearty and full flavoured gravy. And, as if we needed more frites, a bowl came with our main meal. Soft beef, frites and gravy. You couldn’t get a better combo on a cold afternoon.
Drink Belgian beer
Beer is a big deal in Belgium. With over 180 breweries in this country alone, and a strong history of brewing, is it any wonder? From golden ales to blondes, to flemish reds, dubbels and tripels, there is a mind blowing range to choose from. Belgium is also the home of several officially recognised Trappist beers. This means they are brewed by monks, in monasteries, with the proceeds going back to the supporting the monastery of other social initiatives.
We’ve done our very best to support the Belgian economy by tasting as much as we could. Today we had an old favourite, Stella Artois, brewed in Leuven, a town we are yet to visit. Today, it is one of the most well known international beers on the global market and the second largest seller in Belgium.
I love my beer ice cold, which is actually something the Belgians do well. Oh, and I LOVE buying beer when it is served in its own labelled glass. It’s always a fascination for me when buying a different beer as to what glass it is going to arrive in. Stella Artois is traditionally served in a chalice, in a pint. The chalice (note: in the photo below this is the larger glass), apparently allows for the flavour and the aroma to be captured more effectively. Some time ago, I did wish that I had bought a glass each time I’d had a European beer. Now, I’m probably glad I didn’t or else I would be needing to buy another house just to store them in 🙂
The Maes beer that I had with my waffles, is a light, easy drinking pilsner. It’s probably not something that a true beer connoisseur would be drawn too, given it lacks the depth of many of the stronger Belgian beers.
In Belgium, all beers noted on menus must carry the alcohol content. Unlike my country, they don’t do “light” beers, with the lightest alcohol content somewhere around 4.2%, and capping out at around 12%.
The Chimay beer is one of the Trappist beers I mentioned earlier. Made in the Scourmont Abbey, they make three beers for the general public and one beer that is for consumption by the monks only. The Chimay Blue (below) is considered to be the classic Chimay beer, with its dark colour, frothy head, and a very strong taste. This one wasn’t to my liking at all.
Or at least buy some. The Belgians also take chocolate making very seriously and with hundreds of chocolate shops in Brussels alone, there is no excuse for not finding something to your liking. Quick tip: buy chocolate from hand made chocolatiers and not from the souvenir shops that are selling bundled packs of five boxes for extraordinarily low prices. These are machine and not hand manufactured and the proof will most definitely be in the taste.
Track down the Manneken Pis
“What is that?” Surely that little statue is not worthy of all the fuss….and the lines of people queuing and pushing to get to the front to take a photo? How can this really be a tourist attraction? What is it anyway? Well, to be honest, there is so much written on this little man, that I don’t think I need to re-write it. If you are interested in the legends surrounding this read here about “the little peeing man”
In what appears to be even stranger circumstances, the statue is dressed regularly with a variety of different suits. However strange it may appear to me, the people of Brussels include this small, bronze statue in a calendar of annual events. On each occasion, the statue is dressed in a variety of outfits. Today, he was dressed as a cleaner.
Over 800 outfits are on display in the Museum of the City of Brussels, as a means of keeping the history of the Manneken Pis alive.
Visit the Royal Palace of Brussels
Cinquantenaire and the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History
Visit the EU
Brussels is the administrative capital of the EU and plays host to the European Council, European Commission and the European Parliament. It’s an important part of the EU process so if you are interested in politics, this is a great place to visit. There are tours you can do, but it’s also just great to hang out, checking out the people who arrive and depart from their fancy cars, often sporting dark suits and dark glasses.
The European Parliament is located outside of the Brussels city centre. It’s easy enough to take a metro to Luxembourg station. It’s about 200m to the EU precinct from here.
Speaking of black suits……it’s time for me to let you know if we caught the bus. We arrived at Noord Station, the place where we needed to catch our bus from with not much time to spare. Now we needed to find the bus. Not having been inside this particular station before, we weren’t really sure of which way to go. Noord Station is one of those major transportation hubs. Buses, trains, metros, and all on a variety of levels. Nothing is ever clearly signed when you need it the most either.
We raced down a level – to no avail. Back up the stairs we ran once more. Which way now? We look up and down the long, bustling corridor and decide to head for the external doors. Outside, we just start running towards what we think is a familiar landmark. It’s not. We’ve run such a long way now. Where are we? I have no idea!
Time is ticking. Should we go another way ? We change direction after looking quickly at a “you are here” signboard, which quite frankly didn’t really offer up too much. By now we are running. “Excuse me” we say as we rush past more people. Have you ever noticed how everyone walks so slowly when you’re in a hurry. Or, they block the footpaths, takeaway coffees in hand, earphones in ears, oblivious to everything and everyone around them. Running. Running. I’ve chosen to wear heeled boots today which isn’t making things any easier. Puffing.
We’re running fast now. Weaving in and out of people as they start making their way home from work. I see a police officer. I don’t have too many other choices. We need to catch that bus. My Australian accent doesn’t help me as I try to ask for directions. Finally, he understands me and points down the road. We are heading in the right direction. We are close.
Running even faster now. We don’t have time to go into the station and use the normal entrances to the bus. Down the ramp we run. The ramp that has buses by the dozen coming up towards us. I get as close to the edge of the road as I can. We can see bus stops.
We are closer. We run to one only to be told we are on the wrong side. What’s a bit more running. We cross the busy road to get to the other side and finally, finally the NR232 bus sign is visible. People are waiting. People are watching me as I hunch down on the ground, chest heaving. Blood pumping. Sweating so much now as we still have our cold weather clothes on. I feel as though I could vomit. I’m exhausted.
The bus driver sat on his bus and watched us for a minute and then illuminated his route number on the front of the bus and called us on. We had made it with only a few seconds to spare. The bus was crowded and quickly became even more crowded. I was really hot now, almost suffocating. But as I peeled off my coat, it was time to relax. We had made the bus. Goodbye Brussels. We’ve had a fantastic day and an adventurous and overtly athletic end to it all.
Veldkantstraat 64, 1850 Grimbergen
- Small campsite with pitches only available for tourists/travellers. ie no permanent homes.
- Located on the outskirts of Brussels. It is about 45 mins – 1 hour by bus to Brussels city.
- Extremely quiet.
- Close access to bus into Brussels. The NR232 bus stop is a 200m walk from the campground. The bus terminates at Noord Station. From here you can walk into the centre of the city.
- Excellent facilities with the BEST hot water on the entire trip so far. I could have stayed in there forever as it was freezing outside.
- Inexpensive to stay here as well at €20 per night including electricity and use of facilities.
- Free wifi but only in reception or in the roofed area adjacent to it.
- The campground has a boom gate which closes around 7 pm and opens at 8 am.
- The host was incredibly helpful and friendly.
Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.