ONE NIGHT ONLY: My 24 hours in Brussels
Journey to Brussels
By Lizi Woolgar, University of Bristol
I made a fleeting visit to Brussels last weekend with ma fam (no – really the family kind – not ma homies) to visit my Brother, who’s working there over the summer months.
I just want to take a minute to big-up the Eurostar; I can’t believe my first time was aged 21. They have achieved what I believe every form of transport lacks: headrests shaped in a sort of semi-circle that actually allows comfortable napping! No more head-thwacking moments where your numbed hand-pillow just won’t cut it. No more dribbling onto neighbours’ shoulders. Unbelievably simple, but those few extra inches of headrest will not go unappreciated.
As I journeyed to Brussels, I got chatting to a super friendly Belgian girl and a couple of her comments in particular struck me. Firstly, pretty much everyone in Brussels is bilingual (with most actually speaking French/German/Dutch/English). I had a bit of a Miss Congeniality ‘Aloha-Aloha’ moment questioning her on how she could possibly know who to speak which language to! Secondly, she was outraged at how expensive it is to study in the UK. As there as 3 different official communities, the cost of studying does vary across Belgium, but you can expect to be paying from around €350-840 compared to £9 – friggin’ – thousand in England for a single year of study, as we all know too well.
So Brussels, the bilingual metropolis, the centre of government for the European Union and home to reasonably-priced education seemingly has it all, and that’s before even considering the cultural depths of the city. So, I’m going to give you a quick run-down of what I packed into my 24 hours in bootiful Brussels.
We awoke to an unwelcome British sky of doom and gloom, diving into the nearest Metro station to avoid the imminent downpour. Just a tip: as disappointingly practical as it might be, wear ‘grippy’ shoes to run around if it’s wet. My brother and I both made this fatal error and found ourselves skidding every which way on the pavements I can only presume to have been polished by tiny elves.
After a prolonged breakfast, we began by moseying though the Upper Town; the Eastern and larger portion of Brussels. We checked out the Palais Royal and accompanying Parc de Bruxelles and found ourselves remarking at the incredibly lax attitude to security there. Buckingham Palace has a somewhat conceited air with those stern, haughty Guards, whereas tourists quite literally draped themselves around the Palais Royal gate without the bat of an eyelid.
We continued through a local vintage market, past one too many Belgian chocolate shops, until we reached the Grand Place in the Lower Town. The cobbled square is home to an exquisite mish-mash of beautifully-crafted Baroque ensembles, cushtie boutiques and restaurants to satisfy all needs.
After waiting for my mother to stop gawping at the chocolate shop windows – “Is there a strawberry festival? Does that mean the chocolate strawberries are free?!” – we headed into Europe’s oldest covered market (or so I am told) for a spot of lunch. Plumping for the first place in sight, we really hit the jackpot. Le Pain Quotidien offers an array of nourishing, primarily vegan food. This does not mean you will be eating rabbit food for lunch. Just give it a try or I’ll give you your money back (I won’t really).
Following lunch, the sun got his hat on which made marching about quite a clammy task. We staggered by Saint Catherine’s quaint square, complete with flower market and all, only to end up at Da Vinci: The Genius exhibition at the Brussels Stock Exchange. Now, I’m rarely one to advocate self-inflicted education at any level, but this is a must-see. The sheer intelligence and creativity of that man is one to make anyone question why they were even given a brain. Don’t hang about though; the exhibition closes on September 1st.
As the day drew to a close, we ventured through the African Quarter to the Italian-style restaurant Mano Mano, within the Place Boniface. The food here was much less Veggie-friendly, with the language barrier meaning that although I was assured my dish was vegetarian, I was in fact served half a plate of cold meats. It put me very much in mind of the My Big Fat Greek Wedding moment of: “You don’t eat no meat? That’s OK, I cook lamb”. Still, with a bustling atmosphere and amicable staff, it’s a place I would gladly recommend.
Undeniably kooky, Brussels is not simply full of Brussel-sprout-guzzling beings. Not even nearly. It is renowned for world-famous Belgian chocolate, intricate lace products and Belgian Bier (Noun: Beer, in case my Flemmish is too complex for ya). But is also responsible for a few elements of current Pop Culture I was pretty ignorant to, including Tin-Tin and those adorable little fuzzy blue balls that are the Smurfs!
With the alluring charm of cities such as Antwerp and Bruges (article coming soon!) just a short train ride away, Brussels is a totally feasible choice if you’re looking for an affordable yet culturally-enriching weekend break.