As you may remember, our family lived in Brussels, Belgium for four years from 1997 until 2001. Both our children were born in Brussels. After we returned to the US, I had brought the children to visit Brussels in 2005 but we had not been back since then. We thought it very appropriate to visit Brussels on our last weekend getaway before moving back to the states.
Many friends here have asked me if a weekend is enough time to visit Brussels and my answer is always a resounding yes. Not only did we visit Brussels we took a day trip to beautiful Bruges. Belgium is a country about the size of the state of Maryland. It is located north of France and south of the Netherlands, with Germany and Luxembourg to its east. The country is culturally divided in two halves, the northern half that speaks Flemish (similar to Dutch) and the southern half that speaks French. The two groups do not really like each other and often times choose English as the language of choice to address each other in. Brussels is officially a bilingual city so its streets signs are always in both French and Flemish. Belgium is a country rich in history and with wonderful cuisine, not to mention about 400 varieties of beer, yummy waffles, and the best chocolate in the world.
Although Brussels is a small city it is a very important player in the global stage. Both the European Union and NATO are headquartered in Brussels.
We departed after school on a Friday afternoon on a 5:00 p.m. Eurostar train from St. Pancras International Station in London. The train arrived at Gare Midi in Brussels and from there we took a quick taxi ride to our hotel Le Meridién located across from Gare Central in the heart of the city. We were checked into the hotel by 8:30 pm (the clock moves forward by 1 hour). We had made reservations for dinner at the Brasserie de la Roue D’Or located near the Grand Place. This classic Art Nouveau brasserie serves typical Belgian fare like waterzooi (chicken or fish soup), vol-au-vent (chicken in mushroom cream sauce served in pastry shells), moules (mussels), and frites (fries). The restaurant has murals that resemble the art of the famous Belgian surreal artist René Magritte. We enjoyed a delicious dinner.
The next morning we took a one-hour train ride from Brussels to the medieval city of Bruges. Bruges is located in the Flemish northern part of the country. It is a beautiful city that still preserves its medieval charm. The city has canals running through it and has been referred to as the “Venice of the North”.
We meandered through the streets of Bruges and took one of the canal boat rides. The boat ride allows you to enjoy the canals and charming buildings along the way. We had an amazing lunch at a restaurant called Kok au Vin where delicious Belgian food was served. The main city square is called the Markt Square. There you will find the Belfry of Bruges the medieval bell tower that still functions today.
We returned to Brussels by late afternoon. We strolled over to the Grand Place. The Grand Place or Grote Markt is on the UNESCO list of heritage sites, and rightfully so because in my opinion it is one of the most beautiful city squares in Europe. The earliest mention of the Grand Place is 1174. It has always had seven streets feeding into it. Today it is a collection of private and public buildings, with the Hotel De Ville (City Hall) taking up most of its south side. Other buildings in the square include various guild houses, Cloth, Bread and Meat Halls. Many of the immediate streets off of the Grand Place are cobble-stoned. We decided to enjoy an afternoon snack at one of the cafes in the beautiful Galeries St. Hubert. One of my all time favorite snacks is Crepes Mikado, a crepe accompanied with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. My daughter enjoyed another family favorite, a Dame Blanche (White Lady), the French term for a Hot Fudge sundae.
From the Galeries St. Hubert we entered the section known as Ilot Sacré with its famous street called Rue des Bouchers. This street is full of seafood restaurants exhibiting their exotic seafood displays enticing customers to come in. Make sure you do your research before eating in one of these restaurants, since some of them are tourist traps. We had made reservations for dinner at an outstanding family run Italian restaurant Pasta Divina. The wife rolls out the pasta, the husband is the maître’d and the daughter is one of the waitresses. The pasta dishes were amazingly delicious.
We spent our Sunday visiting more Brussels tourist attractions. One of the city’s famous landmarks is that of a small fountain statue of a little boy urinating, The Mannekin Pis. The statue dates back to 1619. There are several legends explaining the significance of the statue, one is the story of the little boy who tried to put out a fire in the city by urinating on it. The bottom line is that it is very endearing and Brussels is quite proud of it. The statue even gets dressed in various costumes depending on the occasion.
The Jazz Marathon Festival was playing in the Grand Place during our visit. The Grand Place was set up with dozens of tables and chairs and surrounded by food and drink stalls. On our second day we chose to have lunch at one of the square’s famous Belgian restaurants Restaurant ‘T Kelderke. We enjoyed more delicious Belgian food. We ate stoemp, a typical dish of mashed potatoes and vegetables, accompanied by various meat dishes. My husband and son had stoemp with sausages and I ate stoemp with Carbonnades Flammandes a delicious Flemish beer stew.
We strolled through the Parc de Bruxellles and made our way to the Royal Palace. We visited, The Cathedral of Saint Michel and Saint Gudule dedicated to the male and female patron saints of Brussels. We then meandered to the Place du Grand Sablon another very quaint square filled with cafes, boutiques and restaurants. On of the ends of the Sablon is the gothic church of Notre Dame Du Sablon built in the early 15th century. Not far from the Place du Grand Sablon is Pierre Marcolini, one of Belgium’s world-renowned chocolatiers.
Belgium is famous for its tapestries and lace making. I definitely recommend you buy some of these as souvenirs. One of my favorite shops is Goblins Art located off of the Grand ‘Place. On Sunday afternoon we enjoyed our last Belgian beer and snacks at the restaurant Le Roy off of the Grand Place before heading back to Gare Midi. We would once again bid the city we once called home, “au revoir and tot ziens”.