One thing I envy those living in Europe is how easy it is to hop on a plane or train for a few short hours and quickly end up in another country. In the brief time we were in France, P and I set aside one day for a quick trip to Brussels. It’s a 90-minute ride from Paris to Brussels and since our hotel was right near the Gare du Nord, it was a walk to the train station from our hotel on a mostly quiet Monday morning.
We arrived at Brussels-Midi station and then took a tram to the town center, which seems to be the only part of town that was busy. Like in France, the Monday we were there was a public holiday (coincidentally the same day as Memorial Day) so most stores and businesses were closed for the day. This at least made our itinerary pretty short and we were able to see the things we wanted to see in the few hours we were there.
The Grand Place dominates the medieval heart of the city, with all the gilded and ornate buildings surrounding the square. Again, there were cobblestones everywhere so yet another day for more aching feet (and alas, no change of shoes all day) but we managed to keep going. We walked along the side streets surrounding the square first, just to see what shops there were and to decide where to spend our Euros later in the day.
I was enamored with the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert with its wonderful glass-covered arcades and all the sweet shops inside. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve seen so many patisseries clustered together in one place ever. In general, there were so many delicious sweets on display both in the arcade and in the shops all around the main square.
But first, we needed lunch. P had visited Brussels before and was leading the way to a good restaurant she had dined at on a previous trip so we made our way there. We arrived only to find it wasn’t open that day. Oops. Fortunately, that street was lined with many restaurants so there were plenty of other options and we ended up at L’Huîtrière. Many restaurants had outdoor seating and we were seated in a white tent on Place Sainte-Catherine.
The menu offered a lunch set consisting of a starter, entrée and dessert and we went with that.
We both ordered the mussels as a starter (the other choices were a fish soup or shrimp and cheese croquettes). The Moules St Catherine is a plate of mussels gratin covered in tomato sauce and served with a herb and garlic sauce in the middle. It was pretty tasty, despite the cheese (fortunately, it was easy to scrape to the side) and I really loved the herb sauce; I kept dipping slices of bread into it.
For the entrée, I went with the cod (served with a white butter sauce and chive) while P chose the steak (with a pepper cream sauce). The fish wasn’t bad but I wasn’t a fan of the creamy sauce (that’s just me). P’s entrée came with a side of frites which was nice and honestly, her steak looked to be the better dish. And there was only one dessert available as part of the lunch set, which was the chocolate mousse. The mousse was delicious, but P and I had some trouble identifying the edible decoration on top. Definitely not a cherry but I think we concluded that it was a tomato of some sort. (Note – Dec 11): Many months after I wrote this up, I learned that the fruit is actually a cape gooseberry.)
Lunch done, we stopped to admire St. Catherine’s Church at the end of the plaza before making our way back to Grand Place. There were a few shops that were definitely on to-visit list, mainly because P came with a shopping list. One place we had to visit was Maison Dandoy, a bakery that’s over a century old. They sell prepacked boxes of biscuits as well as several varieties in loose form (sold by the gram). I bought a box of speculoos cookies and some ginger and Earl Grey biscuits.
The other place on our to-visit list was De Biertempel, which one can deduce from its name sells beer. P had to buy certain bottles for her husband; since I don’t drink, I ended up purchasing an inexpensive Trappist beer for my sister.
After most of our shopping was done, we made our way to one of the more famous landmarks in Brussels.
The infamous Manneken Pis. It’s tucked into a corner just off the Grand Place but there’s always a crowd in front of the fountain so it’s a bit hard to miss; I had to squeeze through the horde of people to get a decent photo. On the day we were there, the statue was shown in all its nude glory but at times, the boy will be wearing some very interesting costumes.
Once I took enough pictures of the fountain, it was time to sample one last Belgian specialty: the Belgian waffle. Mussels, chocolate (in mousse form), beer were already scratched off the list but we saved the waffle for last. One of the streets that lead to the fountain is lined with shops that sell waffles. We bought from a shop that was right near the fountain and had a high turnover. P bought a plain waffle, which costs €1 at all of the shops while I went with a strawberry and confectioners sugar topping. Hot and toasty, one can’t beat a waffle fresh off the grill.
After finishing the delicious snack, we returned to the Grand Place and started to make our way back to the train station. I think we had about an hour’s wait before boarding and we spent much of the time standing around and watching the departures board along with everyone else to see where to go. The trip back to Paris wasn’t too bad though there was an incident involving the two women who sat behind us (one spent too much time talking on the phone and annoyed the person who sat next to her) but for the most part, it wasn’t too bad. At least we could give our feet a rest.