One thing that England does well is public holidays. May is particularly fortuitous with May Day the first Monday of the month and Spring Bank holiday the last Monday of the month. Needless to say, we had spotted these dates way back in January and decided to make the most of them.
Initially we were undecided about the May Day break, but after a quick search on the Eurostar website, we decided that Belgium by train would be a great way to spend the weekend. It involved a bit more of a mad dash to get to London St Pancras than catching a flight from Gatwick, but less of the rigmarole that plane travel necessitates.
Riding the Eurostar
Luckily everything was running to schedule and before we knew it we were on the train. A little smaller and less luxurious than I had imagined, but still comfortable, we set off from St Pancras station, quickly reaching breakneck speed. Before I knew it, we had passed Ashford International and were heading into the tunnel.
The kids at school asked me to take photos from the train inside of the tunnel. I think they had a fanciful idea that it would be like visiting the aquarium and that you would be able to see fish and other marine life swimming by. Alas, it is just a big black tunnel. The train travels so quickly however, you’re barely in it for 20 minutes before you are emerging onto French soil.
After stops at Calais and Lille we were finally in Brussels. Suffering a bit of a cold, and poor Pete suffering me having a cold, we decided that we’d catch a taxi rather than work out the tram system like we had originally intended. Just a 10 minute drive and we were there. The Metropole Hotel. Built at the end of the 1800’s, this hotel, is the only one from its era still operating as a hotel. We were greeted with an opulent lobby that had formerly been a bank and I almost felt that I was at the Grand Budapest Hotel.
Our room was very typically 50’s, with his and hers sinks, his and hers wardrobes, a king sized bed big enough for 3, retro seats and enough floor space to do aerobics (should you be so inclined). We relaxed back into the ginormous bed in preparation for a day of exploration.
Our first impressions of Brussels
Belgium is one hour ahead of the UK, so we rose early and headed out for breakfast. We walked to the main square and ate typical Belgian fare of croissants, chocolate croissants, ham, cheese, toast and jam with orange juice for me and coffee for Pete. It was delicious, but we had to admit defeat with the chocolate croissants and wrap them up for later.
After going for a stroll and seeing the Mannequin Pis (I didn’t realise it was so small!) we decided that we would catch the train to Antwerp for the day. The train was also reminiscent of the 50’s with large fabric seats and luggage rails. We were surprised at some of the stations that had grave platforms and looked a little dubious to be hanging out at night time. In comparison to the roads and the cities they were very run down and in need of a facelift. Never less, we were comfortable for our 50 minute ride north.
Antwerp, although less than an hour away from Belgium, has a completely different feel. Belgium is a mix of French and Dutch, whereas Antwerp’s influences were far more Dutch than French. We explored the town hall, the main street (checking out the diamonds of course!) and settled in a bar with 300 beers for lunch (boy heaven).
After a long walk exploring the town centre and the canal, we were worn out, so we headed back to Brussels. For dinner we headed out to the fish market district for the obligatory meal of moules (mussels). For some reason the Europeans love a 2 or 3 course meal deal and charge you the same whether you just order a main, or order 3 courses. We dined very well that night on lobster tortellini, chilli mussels (Pete), steak (me), ice cream with chocolate sauce (Pete) and crème Brulee (for me). We sat outside in the shadows of St Katherine church, which was lovely.
Sightseeing in Brussels
Unfortunately as I had a cold, we headed back to the hotel and didn’t party on into the wee hours. Not being able to stomach any more croissants, we opted for an English breakfast of eggs and bacon followed by waffles on Sunday. We headed out to explore Brussels on the city explorer bus. First stop was the King’s house, which was packed so we stayed on the bus. Second was the Atomium. After hearing about it from my mum for years this was on the ‘to do’ list. Unfortunately the rain was just too heavy and the queue too long for my sick and sniffily state, so we crammed back on the bus and headed off to the Basilica.
Quite a modern church in comparison to most, the Basilica is a large brick structure with a 360-degree lookout on its roof. We had a wander before we headed back out in to the rain to get some lunch. After some more mussels and some cherry beer (Pete again), we decided to take the other city explorer bus that does a loop closer to town. By this time it was 4pm, and with the last bus at 5pm, we just did a lap of the city without getting off.
We had a last waffle and bought some chocolates and then headed back to the train station for our journey home. This time we were travelling in premium economy, so it was a bit more deluxe and we had dinner included. I can think of worse places to eat a meal than speeding along the French countryside as the sun goes down.
There are so many things to see in Brussels, that a couple of days just didn't seem quite enough. The compact nature of the city and the excellent train services to Antwerp, Brugge and beyond mean that you can squeeze a lot of adventure in a small amount of time and see many of Brussel's top attractions.
All in all, despite my cold we had a great time in Belgium and definitely want to return to see Ypres, Flanders fields and Ghent. Not too soon though, all of that delicious food is not kind to the waistline!
Some facts about Belgium
There are lots of street artists in Brussels. One illusion they love to perform is a balancing act. We saw a man balancing as a genie in a bottle and also three men balancing on top of each other in a seemingly impossible pose.
It is very hard to find apple or any other type of cider in Belgium (even though they brew it!). When visiting a beer café, you will be told that they have beer that tastes ‘just like cider’. The apple was fairly convincing, however the forest berries far too sweet. To me they still tasted like beer, and I left one Belgian pub worker in disbelief than someone could not like beer.
The round up
In Belgium we: Took the Eurostar, ate a lot of croissants, caught the train to Antwerp, did not buy any diamonds, suffered a horrible cold, drank some crazy flavours of beer, ate mussels (twice), ate waffles, bought chocolates, drooled over more chocolates in the window, stayed in a luxe old school hotel, drank Singapore slings, left sunglasses behind and had to chuck a u-ey to retrieve them (not me this time), realised train travel is definitely the way to go…all in 2 days.
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