Just over two months have passed since the Brussels bombings and the city still seems somewhat uneasy. This is most obviously seen in the presence of the army, who not only patrol the main tourist hubs but the whole city centre. Our first interaction with the armed forces was certainly unexpected: whilst sitting on the steps to our apartment, waiting for the owner to deliver our key, Dan and I witnessed a drunk brawl quickly turn nasty. Despite the language barrier we worked out that it was a territory dispute between three drunken men (who we presumed were homeless). In conflict with the quiet setting of the suburban street, the men threw a guitar about, poured beer on the other's face and all before 10am on a sunny Saturday. The fight quickly escalated- moving onto the road and in the way of on coming traffic- and just as we were considering intervening we heard shouts from two armed guards who were running down the street, batons at the ready! Ten minutes later and the police had turned up (presumably to take over) but there was palpable tension between the forces: who holds the power in the city anymore? And is this armed presence indefinite? According to Eugene- the incredibly helpful owner of 'Yawn Space' apartments- the military stay keeps on being extended ("It was initially 2 months, now it is 6...who knows!") But I can't decide if this is for better or for worse. Yes, it undoubtedly creates a safer city, but the knowledge that the military is needed is somewhat unsettling. I was just glad that someone turned up before I had to break-up the brawl!!
(NB. Eugene did say that this was quite an unusual occurrence- so don’t be put off!)
Our apartment 'Yawn Space' was very well located on the trendy side of town, no more than 100 yards from the nearest bar. Whilst the area is vibrant and 'up and coming' it is a representative cross section of Brussels' society and notably provides shelter and food for the homeless. Homelessness was something that really struck me because whilst it is an issue for every city, the sheer amount of people on the street- that included families with young children- was truly shocking. I was reminded of a holiday to Egypt when a young child- of no more than 5 years old- came up to my table shaking a small coin purse. Thankfully her mother was not far away, but even still, it seems inconceivable that there should be so much poverty on the doorstep of the EU (I mean this in both senses as there is in fact a tented camp- which somewhat reminded me of 'Occupy Wall Street'- on the steps leading up to the Royal Palace of Brussels). Perhaps poverty is more pronounced when it isn't on our porch and maybe I've become numb to London's own problem. However, I think it is fair to say that poverty in Europe is on the increase: whether that be in Euston Square or outside Saint-Michel’s Cathedral, there are an alarming amount of people bedded down on layers of cardboard and bags.
Yet in spite of the cultural turbulence that has hit Europe in the past 8 months, the carefree spirit of Brussels is still very much intact. The city has a wicked sense of humour, which is embodied by its iconic statue: The Manneken Pis. Yes- it is literally a statue of a small boy pissing into a fountain of water (he supposedly saved the city by peeing on a fire!) There are in fact three peeing statues in the city, one of which was right outside our apartment: Zinneke Pis (a statue of a mutt peeing on a post, which is said to represent the cultural diversity of the city!) These pissing images are repeated everywhere and found on bottle openers, tea towels and as life-sized chocolate mannequins!
That brings me on to another very important topic: chocolate! Without a doubt the best I have ever tried and there is truly too much choice! There are many chocolate shops in the area surrounding the Grand Place offering free samples to curious customers- so don't feel you need to pay out for an expensive chocolate tour! I'd also recommend trying the meringues and the waffles (you can get both of these for around €1-€3 in certain shops- so try to avoid the tourist traps!)
I presumed this would apply to dining too but in general, our meals were well priced (and always delicious!) Well less than London and the fish was always fresh! Rue des Bouchers is a ‘fish’ street swarming with set-price menus. I was dubious at first but as it turned out my 3-course meal was a real bargain (and even came with a free glass of wine!) A must try is the moules, especially if you are visiting on a month that contains the letter 'R' (September, October etc..) as this is when the mussels are apparently at their best. My May mussels were still spectacular especially when accompanied with white wine sauce and frites. (NB. A side note on fries: they are everywhere and typically served in enormous cones with lashings of sauce! The Belgians certainly know their chips!)
What I loved most about eating in Brussels was dining outside. Even though it rained on Sunday (after being spoilt with 26 degree sunshine on Saturday) the Belgians remained defiant about dining outside- there were just a few more umbrellas up! Tables and chairs spread out into every pathway, providing the perfect opportunity to people watch. Sipping a ‘Leffe Blond’ and looking out on to one of Brussels' many squares, I found myself in love with the laid-back lifestyle: there is always time for a coffee (or beer) with friends. The beer part surprised me because I am NOT a fan of beer. I've never enjoyed the bitter taste and typically prefer a glass of wine at the pub. Belgian Beer is very different and I urge you to try it if you-like me- have never been a fan: the blonde beers in particular were both light and flavoursome and became my beverage of choice for the weekend!
(Several bars offer beer tasting experiences- we got six sample sizes for €20)
And like in France, booze is usually brought with nuts or bread because alcohol is very much a social occasion. The late night crowd was certainly lively, but alcohol is just one element in a bustling Brussels' evening surrounded by friends, food, music... and even dancing in the street! By sheer luck our weekend coincided with the annual jazz festival: a free event that spreads right across the city, with several stages and many more street performers. I would definitely recommend going for the 2017 Jazz Marathon if you- like me- love a good street party! It only took two hours to get there on the Eurostar and yet on Saturday night, dancing along to music from the Soul Messiahs on St. Catherine's Square, I felt a world away from home.
Brussels is both beautiful (the architecture is stunning) and boisterous (well you are never far from a bar!)…silly (peeing fountains) and surreal (the René Magritte exhibition is worth a visit!)…
...and don't worry about packing heels- the dress code is very laid back too (jeans and trainers are always acceptable!)