Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were very excited to touch down at Brussels Charleroi airport as it symbolised the beginning of our month long European road trip in April, 2014. Once Ryan Air had kindly informed us that we were amongst the 99% of their flights which land on time we disembarked the aircraft, eager to see what the land of fries, waffles, chocolate and of course, beer, had in store for us. A lack of sign posts meant it took us about 60 minutes longer than expected to even leave the airport, but eventually we found ourselves catching a bus, a train and then a subway to our hostel in Brussels. We stayed at CHAB Van Gogh Hostel (about €21 per night) which was built around a court yard, included free breakfast (and therefore lunch!) and had its own bar, with inexpensive, locally brewed beer – including one called gueuze beer – delicious. The hostel was on the other side of the red-light district, which meant walking through it at night was a bit creepy.
The hostel was conveniently located walking distance from the famous town square “Grand Place” which was very impressive, with amazing buildings around each and every side of the square. Located nearby is the Galeries St-Hubert, which is a Galleria similar to the one we have in Milan, and is extremely beautiful – especially by night. We didn’t know it yet, but the high frequency of chocolate shops we saw inside was a definite indication of how many we would see over the next few days! (Hot tip: although the chocolate from these chocolatiers absolutely melts in your mouth and is something you must try, it is also ridiculously expensive – the cheap Belgian chocolate at the supermarkets tends to be just as scrumptious. We managed to score a fair amount of free chocolate just by hunting down shops with free samples.) Whilst walking in the streets by the square we stumbled across what was blatantly a tourist street – restaurant after restaurant colorfully lit up, people sitting outdoors eating delicious food (mussels being a common occurrence) and charming waiters doing their best to entice you to eat at their restaurant opposed to the one next door.
On the left hand side as you walk from the square to the Mannekin Pis is a waffle shop, where you can buy waffles for €1 and then pay individually for each topping; ice-cream, chocolate, fruit, cream -the possibilities were endless. The Mannekin Pis is probably the most underwhelming statue I have ever seen, however the little boy peeing is a true Belgian symbol, and is splashed all over postcards, t-shirts and even chocolates are made that resemble him! The souvenir shops advocating this marvelous tourist attraction contain replicas that are actually bigger than the statue itself (which isn’t hard given the statue is about the size of my forearm). From here it is possible to walk to the Palais de Royal and the gardens- both of which were beautiful. Louise Avenue is the place to visit for all the expensive shopping; a wide open street similar to the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Another highlight was the Palais de Justice – once the biggest building in Europe, the courthouse was absolutely magnificent, and being open to the public we were fortunate enough to be able to wander around this maze of a building and take a look ourselves. From here you can catch a free glass elevator down into the cobble-stoned Marolles quarter which is definitely worth a wander. Finally to finish off a glorious day of sightseeing, we caught a metro out to the National Stadium, Atomium and Mini – Europe, which are all right next to each other and within a fun little restaurant area whose menus were deliberately aimed at covering every cuisine in the world! (Similar commercial vibes to being in a theme park).
Just an hour train ride away, we quickly understood the reason that Bruges is known as the “Venice of Northern Europe”. A train ticket was €12 return for under 25s, and €28 if you are older than that! Our arrival to Bruges was highly amusing – Chinese flags and people everywhere, more policemen (on motorbikes) than I could count, and a large number of official cars driving around causing a number of detours to be in place. Naturally we joined the crowds to watch the parade – it turns out that the Chinese president was in town! Bruges’ main square was also beautiful; wide and open with glorious buildings and a great atmosphere – very comparable to St Mark’s square in Venice. Home to the famous Choco-story museum, Michelangelo’s Madonna statue, and lots of romantic parks for canoodling in (… a common sight!) the town was quaint, vibrant and everything I had hoped for. After exploring the canals and kissing the frog (obligatory as a tourist) we bought some of the classic Belgian sea shell chocolates, and spent the afternoon lazing in the spring sunshine at a park – pure bliss.
I also made a video, check it out here.