16 November 2015

Mussels in Brussels

Saturday was my birthday, but both my parents also have big birthdays this month and so my brother and I had planned a surprise day trip to Paris for them. We spent a lot of time in Paris as a family when I was younger and we all have many fond memories of the city. As such, I was utterly shocked and saddened by the news of the brutal attacks in the city on Friday night. Needless to say, I didn't sleep very much that night, watching the news unfold and reflecting on the awfulness of it all.

We decided to meet as planned at St Pancras station on Saturday morning to make a new plan. We wanted to show our solidarity with Paris, but it didn't feel right to go there on a trip that was supposed to be a joyful, celebratory occasion. The Eurostar staff, to their credit, were excellent. They allowed us to change our tickets to go to Brussels instead, and we were even able to upgrade to Standard Premier and to go to the club lounge before boarding. We had our second breakfast of the day in the lounge (the third came on the train) and I played with the iPad-operated coffee machine. The filter coffee was only OK, but the machine was pretty cool.

We arrived in Brussels at noon and the weather was not the greatest (it was cold and pretty rainy), but we walked from the Gare du Midi into the city centre via Rue Blaes, which is a great shopping street. There are dozens of lifestyle boutiques (such as Superstraat), design and furniture shops, and vintage emporia. We had a lunch date and so didn't have time to browse, but if you are looking for good shopping in the city, this is a great place to head for.

For lunch, we went to a rather traditional restaurant called Aux Armes de Bruxelles, located on rue des Bouchers in the heart of the old city. The restaurant itself is a little old-fashioned, but the food was good. We shared some oysters to start and then variously enjoyed steaks, mussels (not pictured!) and other classic Belgian fare. For pudding, of course I had to try the Belgian waffles, which were pretty good. The staff were very friendly and accommodating too.

Having done very little research, we didn't have very grand plans for the afternoon — the persistent drizzle didn't help — but we did some window-shopping in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a series of grand, glass-roofed 19th century shopping arcades. I picked up some delicious chocolates from Pierre Marcolini.

Another of Brussels' most famous tourist spots is the Manneken Pis, a statue of a small peeing boy. The boy is often kitted out in a costume provided by a local group or organisation. Saturday's monochrome attire was courtesy of the Cercle des Sciences. We also spotted another famous Belgian: Tintin! The street art in Brussels is great and I always used to enjoy the Tintin books (there is a shop on Rue de la Colline, if you are a fan).

Grand Place is the main square in the historic city centre and has lots of rather grand buildings. As it began to get dark, the buildings lit up and it was very pretty and cosy-feeling. Eventually, the Maison du Roi, which houses the city museum, was illuminated with Tricolor colours in solidarity with the people of Paris.

We did a little more window shopping before the rain drove us into La Taverne de la Brouette, a cosy little restau-bar on the Grand Place. The beer drinkers enjoyed some Belgian craft beers, but having consumed a large amount of coffee and Champagne over the course of the day, I stuck to a soft drink. Then, it was time to head back to the station for our train home. We didn't have time to ride on the Grande Roue de Paris, but it did look very pretty, all lit up by night.

Our time in Brussels was all too short and unplanned and I would like to come back to explore the shops and the foodie scene and to try some of the speciality coffee shops that I identified but didn't have time to visit. OR Espresso Bar in the city centre and Bocca Moka and Le CafĂ© du Sablon a little further out all looked like good bets.

The birthday festivities continued yesterday, when we went to Hixter Bankside for my birthday lunch. The roast chicken was marvellous, as were the puddings (the white chocolate and raspberry cheesecake is divine) and cocktails. It was a strange and often sad weekend to be celebrating birthdays, but I felt grateful to be able to spend it with family — and to know that my Paris-based friends are all safe. We will be making a return visit to Paris — and soon, I hope.

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