Dates: April 19th – April 22nd
Distance walked: 53.68km
Temperature high: 29°C
Belgium greeted us with parching 29°C heat continuing our good run of luck touching down in a new country on a beautiful, sunny day. The bus trip from the airport takes you into the city through the vibrant green fields on the outskirts of Brussels, which is the perfect way to describe the city itself, vibrant.
The de facto capital of the European Union is historically Dutch speaking however French is the predominant language nowadays and the city is made up of a mixture of the French and Flemish communities with a significant number of young and migrant inhabitants. This melting pot of influences combines to create a multilingual, multicultural, 24/7 effervescent vibe.
On our first afternoon, until well into the evening, we got lost wandering in the winding, cobbled streets of Brussels centre. The oldest part of the city is the most attractive and we loved dipping in and out of sweet scented chocolatiers, snapping pictures of the gold covered buildings in the Grand Place (the main square of the city) and stumbling across an iconic Belgian figure.
The Manneken Pis, a 61cm bronze figurine of a urinating toddler would probably be considered offensive in most cultures as a symbol for the people. However, in Brussels it is the number one (pun intended, sorry) sight in the city and he is a much loved figure by the people, encapsulating their sense of humour. I admit it is difficult not to have a chuckle and admire the defiant youngster, he even has his own extensive wardrobe of outfits housed in the Gardrobe Mannekinpis.
There’s no way that we could pass up the opportunity to see a collection of hundreds of tiny outfits specially made and dedicated to the city of Brussels from all over the world for this 400 year old icon. Light hearted and informative, the museum showcases a selection of the thousands of costumes which have been acquired over the years with the entire collection being available to view on an interactive, touchpad display.
After the hilarity of the Garderobe Mannekenpis, we needed a drink to calm ourselves down. In the evenings the bars in the city centre are packed with customers taking advantage of the many ‘happy hour’ offers, however we stayed for only a few drinks as generally it’s quite expensive in most places.
A day trip to Bruges was at the top of our agenda for day two of four and whilst Colin Farrell may not have thought much of it, it was definitely my personal highlight of our stay. Venetian-esque canals and authentic medieval architecture decorate the city, creating a magical place that could easily have been plucked from a Hans Christian Andersen novel.
We climbed the treacherous 366 steps of the Belfry of Bruges, famously seen in one of my favourite films, In Bruges, to take in a panoramic view of the city. The ascent is physically challenging and will no doubt raise your heart rate by a beat or ten. The steps are narrow and steep and there is only one staircase so be prepared to suck in your stomach and cling to the walls as people make their way back down past you.
Thankfully we made it safely to the top. However, literally seconds after we were standing in the uppermost room of the tower discussing whether or not the bell would be rung whilst people visited, we got a resounding answer. The bells all around us clattered into action, vibrating the room as the people around us stood either in awe or shocked horror. Have your wits about you if you take on the Belfry of Bruges.
We rounded off our afternoon by seeing some more famous sights including a phial of blood allegedly belonging to Jesus Christ in the Basilica of the Holy Blood before trying some Belgian confectionary in the form of the cuberdon, a sweet, raspberry flavoured candy that has a firm cone-shaped crust and softer gelatin inside.
Back in the city we visited Brussels Park for a stroll and to peer at the Royal Palace situated opposite. Walking back into the centre you get a glorious view from the west side of the Palace as it looks down onto the older part of the city. There are plenty of museums in the area as well as a garden area with benches so an ideal spot to learn a bit about the city or just enjoy a sit down with a view.
In the morning of our second last day in Belgium we ventured to see Europe’s most bizarre building as named by CNN, the Atomium. A 355 foot tall, stainless steel representation of an iron crystal atom magnified 165 billion times sits in the Heysel Plateau in Brussels. The nine spheres are all accessible to the public with an admission fee of €15 and contain restaurants, shops, exhibits and a 360° observation deck.
Instead, we took a trip to Mini-Europe which is only a few hundred metres away from the huge structure. Major landmarks from all over Europe have been painstakingly recreated in miniature form here. A novel way to go sightseeing for a few hours however it is probably best enjoyed by children who can interact with each landmark to sound the horn of a ferry in Dover, wear comically oversized clogs in the Netherlands and feel the vibrations of Mount Vesuvius erupting in Italy.
Some rest and relaxation was in order after travelling through all of Europe in one afternoon so we headed to Cinquantenaire, a park in the European Quarter with a large triumphal arch as a centrepiece. Here we soaked in some sun and dipped our tired feet in a cool fountain in what is certainly one of the most scenic areas of the city.
In the evening we sampled some traditional Brussels waffles, rectangular in shape unlike the oval Liege waffle, and so our desire for Belgian cuisine was kick-started and spilled over into our final day in the country.
The theme of our last day was decadence as we visited Fritland in the morning to sample some french fries, Belgian style. Much debate goes on between France and Belgium as to who actually invented the popular, fried snack and the massive portion sizes in Brussels almost seem like a form of bribery for good favour in this argument. After tasting some myself I’m happy to accept that bribe and state with no qualms that Begians are the kings of fries.
Our hunger for local delicacies didn’t stop there as in the afternoon we indulged in some Belgian history by taking part in a chocolatier workshop at l’atelier de neuhaus.
Dating back to 1857 when pharmacist Jean Neuhaus, a Swiss immigrant from an Italian family who had changed their name from Casanova to fit in, started covering his medicines in chocolate to make them more palatable, it was the beginning of one of Belgium’s most renowned chocolatiers. His grandson Jean Neuhaus Jr would go on to invent the praline chocolate (chocolate with filling inside) and Louise Agnostini, Neuhaus Jr’s wife, innovated how chocolates were packaged by using a gift wrapped box for the very first time.
We learned about the history of Neuhaus from chocolatier, Estelle, as well as the preparation and intricacies of chocolate making before tasting the delicious caprice and tentation ranges. After this we had sufficient knowledge to be let loose with piping bags full of hot, melted chocolate and a selection of toppings to choose from, bringing to life our own chocolate fantasies. It was an experience equal parts messy, fun and delicious which saw us leave with a satisfied palate and a goody bag full of our own creations, an absolute must for chocolate lovers.
An early rise awaited us the following morning to catch our flight to Stockholm so we headed back to the apartment with our chocolate masterpieces for a quiet evening before another day of travelling. Both of us are in agreement that Brussels has set the standard so far and I recommend to anyone reading that you go and that you bring your appetite with you.