Saturday, 25 October 2008

There’s more to Brussels than just sprouts

All right so the title of this post is a tad misleading. It has nothing to do with the much maligned vegetable, which – call me weird – is one of my favourites – and everything to do with the Belgian capital, and a fair bit to do with food.

But more on that in a moment.

Brussels, home to Nato, the wannabe and de facto “capital” of the European Union (it’s where the Commission sits and the parliament too, when the latter isn’t schizophrenically transported to Strasbourg in Eastern France every month for a week) and the place I decided to spend my birthday (that’s THE news value as far as I’m concerned - call me vain).

Anyway, film buffs and those among you old enough might remember the film "If it's Tuesday it must be Belgium."

It's a romantic comedy from 1969 in which a group of US holidaymakers takes a whistle-stop tour through Europe, visiting seven different countries in just 18 days. A bit of a cliché at the time perhaps on how Americans see the world, but nonetheless an image that sticks in the mind as vacation time is limited and there's just so much to see on this side of the Pond.

Well it wasn't Tuesday, but Wednesday, and I'm certainly not American, but British. All the same it was most definitely Belgium and to be more precise the capital Brussels that took my fancy.

The joys of high-speed train travel means that it only takes one hour and 20 minutes to cover the roughly 300 kilometres from Paris.

Thalys (pronounced Tallis)

As Thalys (the equivalent of the Eurostar service only it connects Paris with Brussels rather than London – obviously) leaves Gare du Nord, it doesn’t waste much time in picking up speed and zapping through the notoriously flat northern French countryside.

In fact the landscape passes in such a giddy blur that it's just as well passengers can fit in a spot of work during the journey. That's made easier by the wifi Internet connection (free in first class, a small supplement in second) which is a must-have for a service that has become the usual way for businessmen and politicians to travel - almost "commute" between the two cities.

In peak hours, trains leave from Paris every 30 minutes - and it has become an even more important link between the two cities since Air France stopped flying the route because it simply couldn't compete.

All right enough of the journey. It’s fast and comfortable and gets you conveniently from city centre to city centre. Full stop.

Now Belgium might seem an odd sort of destination for a "treat". Maybe the title of the film said it all in a way, as the country suffers somewhat from an identity crisis, and isn't high on most people's lists of places to see.

Mind you, that identity crisis is one with which the country is struggling internally and is hardly surprising perhaps given the French-Flemish linguistic, geographical and political divide. Furthermore the country's image abroad wasn't helped much when the Flemish Christian Democrat prime minister (as now is) Yves Leterme was asked by Belgian television to sing the country's national anthem before celebrations to mark its National Day on July 21, 2007. Leterme broke into the opening bars of La Marseillaise - the French national anthem.

While the country is undoubtedly famous for a number of things such as chocolate, beer, waffles and chips (fries - not crisps) it's also the target of some ridicule (name ten famous Belgians - I can, but can you?) and the butt of many a joke such as:

Question:Where is the biggest chip shop in the world?"
Answer: "On the border between France and the Netherlands."

A word of explanation, chips in British English are the equivalent of French fries. And a quick look at a map of Europe will show you that France and the Netherlands don't share a common border - because Belgium is in the way.

All that of course is the stuff of clichés, as is the snootiness with which France seems to view the cuisine of its smaller neighbour.

As you've probably gathered by now, this was no culture-vulture trip - or even the pretence thereof (well a quick gander at the Mannekin Pis - disappointingly small - and a wander around Corneille's gallery to look at his cats) but the main attraction was most definitely gastronomic.

Belgian food has the (deserved) reputation of being rather hearty, so it's not for those counting the calories or worrying about the waistline. And one of its specialities (well in northern France too to tell the truth) is moules-frites (or mussels and chips, which sounds decidedly less appetising maybe) washed down with a local beer.

My short but determined eating extravaganza was to take place in La Grand Place in the centre of Brussels - probably the first stop for many a tourist. It's an enormous open space surrounded by beautiful gabled buildings, including City Hall. And in summer most of the restaurants and cafés have seating outside.

La Grand Place

In one corner of La Grand Place is something of a mussel Mecca - if you will - for tourists and locals alike. It's the T'Kelderke, a small and very cosy (read noisy and elbow to elbow) cellar, packed with atmosphere, the service is fast and the food delicious.

In season of course moules-frites are the thing to go for, Perhaps moules marinieres. And be warned, when it comes to the chips, we're not talking about those skinny little efforts you might find at any fast food joint. These are the proper thick, fat, luscious things - a complete meal in themselves - almost.

And as promised, all washed down with one of those famous beers - blondes or brunes the choice is amazing and the list to a non beer drinker, bewildering.

When mussels aren’t in season, there are always those other Belgian specialities (I hesitate to call them delicacies as any meal here will leave you full). There's seafood , waterzooi (a light chicken or fish stew with cream) and carbonnades a la flamande (beef stew with beer)

If you cannot get in to that particular bar, or you haven't the patience to wait - and you haven't a clue where to eat, wander along the rue des bouchers (just a stone's throw from La Grand Place) and the adjoining streets, where you'll be spoilt for choice. Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Chinese, Thai and of course restaurant after restaurant serving up those Belgian dishes.

You'll be accosted in the friendliest of manners by waiters encouraging you to come and eat inside - and there's more of that beer of course. You can even eat outside on the chilliest of nights as there's external heating.

Finally - and this is definitely the order in which to do things, as you roll out of the restaurant - is a meander through the covered galleries, Galerie du roi and Galerie de la reine, perpendicular to rue des bouchers. Simply put they are chocolate heaven (as is much of Brussels) and even with a full tummy you still run the risk of tripping over your tongue as it’s likely to hit the ground at the obscenely delicious displays of chocolate in shop window after shop window. Cruelty written big time for those counting the calories – and don’t even think about entering one, because you won't come out empty handed.

Should you still feel a bit peckish by the time breakfast comes around, there's always another Belgian special on offer - waffles. But that might just be pushing the limits of what one person can eat in the shortest period possible.

One word of warning when arriving and departing by train. Both Eurostar from London and Thalys from Paris arrive and leave from Gare du Midi – De Zuid and not Central Station.

Worth remembering when you’re late and in a hurry to catch your train – only to pitch up at the wrong station. There speaks the voice of experience.

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