Brussels, Belgium (Summer '14)

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The first time I visited Belgium, I was 12 years old and accompanying my father on a business trip to Brussels. Almost 20 years later, I made my way to Brussels again - this occasion to coincidentally visit a friend who has been recently travelling back and forth on business!

Belgium is of course famed for its chocolate and my recent long weekend away was short and sweet, leaving me with a strong craving to return and explore more places such as Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent.

For those who live in London, Brussels seems to be the less glamourous destination of the Eurostar - Paris largely receives all the attention and plaudits. Not to mention, when one hears or reads of Brussels in British popular media, it is a city synonymous with the European Union and it's political merits (or faults) rather than spoken of as an attractive city break for culture, food and scenery! If you don't believe me, try buying a return train ticket for less than £100 to Paris ten days in advance of your journey - it's certainly a rare sight in comparison to Brussels.

I must admit, my expectations were modest and I was just happy to be taking a short trip, but throughout the weekend I found many pockets of charm as we made our way through the city and by the seaside in Ostend. I took full advantage of the sunny weather and came away with the feeling that Belgium is a country I want to return to and see more of.

After quickly settling in, we went in search for a nice breakfast. I quickly experienced the variable nature of Belgian weather when from one moment to the next the sun disappeared, the heavens opened up, and then the sun quickly appeared once again. A rain shower nicely made up our mind and we ducked into Le Cafe du Sablon for our first coffee of the day. The cafe was a warm, relaxed space where they roast their own beans and as you can see below, food played a delicious part of the weekend with visits to Makisu for a sushi lunch, Gaudron for Sunday brunch, Wittamer for afternoon eclairs and Maison Dandoy for waffles.

There were plenty of neighbourhoods with flowered balconies, shops with inviting wares to browse, and cafes to take a break from all the walking (or sporadic rain!) I especially enjoyed wandering around Candide, an independent bookstore in Uccle with bright ceiling lamps and an excellent selection of mostly non-English titles.

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the Horta Museum. Victor Horta was a Belgian architect and designer and is considered to be the chief exponent of art nouveau. He is often referred to as the Belgian equivalent of Spain's Gaudi and four of his buildings are now under UNESCO protection. The museum we visited is his former house and there are so many interesting, intricate features contained within - unfortunately photography isn't allowed inside, so you'll have to visit in person to experience it yourself!

With the weather being so nice and the city being a little more sleepy on a Sunday, we thought it best to venture out of Brussels and take a day trip. Immediately my mind went to visiting Bruges, Antwerp or Ghent - but I was convinced by my fellow travel companions that a trip to the seaside at Ostend would be the perfect way to enjoy the sunny weather and of course to breathe in some fresh air. The town itself is certainly not the most picturesque in Belgium, but the beach on such a sunny warm day gave the impression that you had been transported to Southern Europe!

We also chanced upon a Sunday flea market and took a short video of a group of vintage-clothed cyclists!

On my final day, I visited some of the sites which Brussels is reknowned for (apart from the EU quarter I'm afraid - next time!) I had the pleasure of seeking sanctuary in the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart during a rainstorm. It felt like I had the whole church to myself to explore. As you can see, churches were a theme that ran throughout the trip both in Brussels and Ostend. The cubist stained glass windows in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul was a feature that struck me as a style I hadn't seen before. Later in the day, I visited the Grand Place, the Manneken Pis, the so-called 'Chocolate Roundabout' and a number of fantastic chocolate shops in the old town - some of which you can only find in Belgium. Frederick Blondeel and Elizabeth are my new personal favourites!

Hope you can make a quick break for Brussels soon and here's a list of some of my trip's highlights:

Parc Royal, Cafe du Sablon, Wittamer, Frederic Blondeel, Steigenberger Grandhotel, Makisu, For, Musee Horta Museum, Place du Luxembourg, A L'Ombre de la Ville, & Hortense Spirits & Cocktails.

Gaudron, Candide, Ostende Town, & Beau Site.

Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, Sirre, Cafe Metropole, Grand Place, Galerie de la Reine, Mary Chocolaterie, Elizabeth Chocolaterie, Maison Dandoy, Manneken Pis, & Cathedrale Saint-Michel.

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