Sunday, November 25, 2012

Belgium on a whim

Most Saturdays usually involve sleeping off a hangover, doing some shopping, catching up on some of my favourite TV shows etc. Just normal Saturday stuff. Don't get me wrong, I love my Saturdays of doing not much, but every now and again I need to get out and do something different. I've also decided that I am far too planned with stuff. I never really do anything on a whim. Something I am trying to change (only for the fact that I think it could be fun!).

This weekend I decided to do something a little out of the ordinary. I wanted to go somewhere I'd never been before, but wasn't really sure where to go. I also wanted to do it on my own, just because I thought it would be fun.

So on Friday night I took a look at the Deutsche Bahn site and saw that there was a 10:16am departure direct from Frankfurt to Brussels, getting me into town at about 1:30pm. Perfect. I then took a look at to see what was on offer in terms of accommodation. There was a mystery hotel offer in the city centre for a handsome price of €70 rated at 4 stars. €70 sounded like a bargain for somewhere relatively nice so I booked it (having no idea which hotel it was, or what it looked like). Turns out it was the Hilton. Score! It was only a 10 minute walk from the station in one direction and another 10 mins to the city centre in the other.

With my plans made, I threw a few clothes in a bag and headed down to take the train. Deutsche Bahn got me to Brussels on time and the trip took me via Cologne and Aachen. Upon arriving and doing the hotel check in, I dropped my stuff off and headed out with a map and some rough directions from the Concierge.

First stop: Food.

It was getting on towards 2pm and my tummy was feeling a little empty, so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to sample of local fare. The Concierge had marked out at area near St Catherine's Cathedral to help me avoid the over priced and poor quality tourist traps down town. I stumbled upon La Paon Royal (Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains 6). A nice little pub with tasty food and (in true Belgian fashion) a good selection of beers ( I opted for the steak with a selection of dipping sauces (3 sauces all up) with the traditional Belgian fries. The meat was amazing and you could tell they had used real artery clogging animal fat to fry the chips in. They were possibly some of the best chips I had ever had. None of the crap about cholesterol free blah blah blah. All full fat and tasty goodness.

One google reviewer writes:

"...this typically Bruxellois treat is in a house dating from 1631 that has a rustic wood-and-exposed-brick interior and timber-beamed ceiling. Have just a snack with one of the 65 brands of beer, six of them draft beers, behind the tiny bar (some of which are used in the cooking), or try the hearty plat du jour, invariably a traditional Belgian dish offered at lunchtime only. Specialties of the house are roast suckling pig in a mustard sauce, and cod filet in a Hoegaarden (Belgian white beer) sauce."

Of course I chose a beer to go with it, a local darker beer with a heavy flavour. Lunch was a big success.

Then it was time to go and see what Brussels had to offer in terms of sight seeing.

Next Stop: Grand Place de Bruxelle

This is a huge square lined with tourist heavy chocolate and beer shops. The buildings are amazing and it's one of those places where it's hard to take a bad picture. I have to admit I didn't spend too long here. While it was amazing, and the buildings were impressive. The throngs of tourists started to edge on my nerves after a while.

So I decided to go on to see another element of Belgian fame:

Manneken Pis.

Manneken Pis is a statue of a little boy doing a wee. Why this has become such a famous tourist attraction is really difficult to understand. It is funny, and I like the humour of it all...but really? I think now it's just famous for being famous. Apparently at different times of the year the city will dress him in different outfits. You can buy postcards of a the different outfits...kind of like a urinating fashion show. You will have to climb over a mob of Americans and Japanese people to get a decent picture. But it's the one thing everyone goes to see in Belgium, so you kinda have to take a picture :-) I am told there is a female (squatting) version somewhere in the city, but I didn't stumble across it.

Brussels has a lot of amazing buildings to go and see. The royal palace and some of the government buildings are quite impressive. It's great to just walk and explore the city streets and the little squares.

Of course I bought chocolate. I actually made myself feel a little sick from a sugar overload. But it is very good and the Belgians are very proud of their chocolate. I also found some waffels (a must) and drank my fare share of beers as well. Try to be careful with the beer as some of them are a lot stronger than you might think!

With all the chocolate, beer, waffels and french fries (or Belgian fries)...I was really shocked that I didn't see more 'larger' people around. A country built on good metabolism.

I essentially ate my way through that city. Croque Monsieur for Sunday lunch, waffels, more french fries (they really are sooo good!). I told myself I could eat what I like in Brussels as long as I went to the gym this week. A lot.

Before I knew it, it was Sunday afternoon and I was headed back to Bruxelle Midi to catch the 2:15pm train back to Frankfurt. Deutsche Bahn whisked me quickly back across the border to Germany and I was home by 6pm.

I was a bit apprehensive at first about going on my own, but in the end I really loved it. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. It was actually nice to be able to be quite selfish like that for a while and just do whatever the hell I liked. Some people might think it a bit strange, but sometimes a bit of time on your own can be great (I'm also a big fan of going to the cinema solo).

Brussels really surprised me. It was a lot busier, bigger and fast paced than I had expected. The rumours of Belgium being 'boring' are completely not true. It's definitely an underestimated travel destination. It's hard to believe I was only in town on a 24 hour flying visit, but I loved it and saw loads. It certainly beat a weekend of bumming around at home!