Home • About Johnny Jet • Publicity • Newsletter Archive • Contact Us
|Where’s Georgie-Jet? Brussels|
Explore the history and old-world elegance of Belgium's capital city.
By Georgette Diamandis
When you think of Belgium, what do you think of? Waffles, chocolate, beer and mussels, perhaps? How about medieval buildings, seamlessly blended with modern structures? Extremely friendly people with a lust for both culture and life? I recently discovered that Brussels is a combination of all this, plus so much more. It's an easy walking city, oozing with history. It's a blend of old-world elegance with a hip, young art and design scene. It's a cosmopolitan, international city where there are two official languages; French and Dutch. But don't worry! It's an easy city for Americans to navigate because most people speak English. I flew American Airlines from New York and the trip was a quick 6 1/2 hours. A long weekend isn't out of the questions, particularly if you're coming from the east coast of the US or Canada, since, for example, it takes approximately the same amount of time to travel from New York City to Nantucket.
The first two days of my visit, I stayed at The Hotel Le Plaza, a grand, 5-star hotel built in 1930. The hotel was shut down in 1978 for almost 20 years, then revived by a Baron in 1996. He hired the same decorator, Pierre-Yves Rochon, who designed the Four Seasons George V Hotel in Paris, to breathe new life into the old hotel. Old-world luxury abounds, with high ceilings in the bedrooms, intricate moldings, fine furnishings and an attentive staff. All the bathrooms are new and in mine, I was delighted to find a fresh white lily; a lovely touch that gave forth a fragrant aroma. Special summer rates start at 99 euro per night, but the rack rate is much more expensive -- up to 350 euro. The best online resource to refer to is www.visitbelgium.com, a comprehensive website that lists all the local hotels, plus offers information on practically everything else you need to know about Belgium. One of the best things about Brussels is that everything is within walking distance. The Hotel Le Plaza is close to The Grand'Place, an old square lined with medieval buildings, a gathering place reminiscent of St. Mark's in Venice. I felt like I was in Planet of the Apes, approaching an incredible ancient city center tucked away in a modern civilization. It took my breath away. I spent most of my time walking around this pedestrian-friendly city, getting to know the area, checking out the Royal Art Museum and admiring the interesting architecture. All the while, the beauty and the aroma of Brussels overwhelmed my senses. This city definitely has a cafe-culture, and everywhere I went, fresh smells enticed. There are lots of outdoor cafes and restaurants, not to mention chocolate shops, where you can buy the most beautifully made and packaged confections.
I spent another night in Brussels at The Welcome Hotel, a cozy, family-owned-and-run hotel in an ideal location -- the old fish market. (It was a fish market centuries ago, so it doesn't smell like fish now!) A different country inspires every room's decor. I slept in "China", and had to climb a ladder to my loft bed. It was pretty adventurous and a little hot, since at the time, Brussels was experiencing some unusually warm temperatures and the rooms are not air-conditioned. However, at 90 euro a night, with breakfast included and incredibly friendly hosts, it was worth it! If you're feeling flush, check out the lush Hotel Amigo, where you can rent a suite for $3,200 euro per night like a Rolling Stone, or just have drinks in the lobby, like we did.
GETTING AROUND TOWN
A taxi ride from the airport to Brussels costs about $35USD. You can also take a train for 2.80 euro, which runs four times an hour. Once you're in Brussels, walking is definitely the way to go. There is so much to see close to the Grand'Place. There are also bicycles to rent around town, though you'll need a credit card. There are 23 bike stations throughout the city, no more than 300 meters apart, at which to leave them when you're done riding. Another way to get around town is by purchasing a Brussels Pass, which will get you get free admission to 23 museums (though not the Royal Art Museum) and free public transportation. The card costs 19 euro for 24 hours, 27 euro for 48 hours and 32 euro for 72 hours. There are discounts for stores and restaurants as well. I took a tram back from The Atomium using the pass. It was interesting, but because I don't really speak French or Dutch, a little nerve-wracking. However, everyone I asked for help was more than willing to go out of their way to help me get to my destination.
THINGS TO DO
The Atomium (admission: 9 euro for adults) is an incredible structure built in 1955 for The Universal Expo and is a replica of an iron molecule, blown up 167 billion times! That's about seven stories high. It was just renovated, complete with a shiny new exterior in 2001. The coolest part is taking the elevator to the top to get a great view of Brussels and the lunch at the restaurant was wonderful, too. For more information, visit www.atomium.be. Right next-door is Mini-Europe, Lilliputian replicas of Europe's most significant buildings, as well as an indoor/outdoor water park called Oceanade. The tram is nearby to get you back to Brussels center.
I took a tour of a chocolate shop, run by chocolatier Manon (Rue Tilmont, 32, 2, 425, 26, 32). He works in an old building where he makes chocolate in the same place and in the same way as his grandfather did, some 70 years ago. As soon as I walked into his shop, the incredibly fragrant aroma took me back in time to my mother's kitchen when she made homemade chocolate pudding. Manon was there to show us his technique and allowed us to try our hand at creating the special sweets. Manon also explained Belgium's connection to Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the source of the world's best cocoa. He extolled the benefits of eating chocolate; it's an anti-depressant, has high magnesium and gives instant energy. Good to know! He explained that his dark chocolate has a very high percentage of cocoa while the white chocolate is only cocoa butter, the fat from the pods. No wonder I never liked or understood the appeal of white chocolate. He also told us that a "praline" is just a filled chocolate in Belgium. Manon uses hazelnut cream and fresh cream ... no preservatives here, baby! He doesn't spend money on expensive shops or packaging, but if you want the best Belgian chocolate, you can order directly from him. He also offers tours for 25 people or more for 10 euro per person during the summer and fall months.
DELECTABLE DINING ... AND DRINKING!
My favorite meal in Brussels was at Chez Leon, a famous restaurant on Rue des Bouchers (Butcher Street, centuries ago). This lively street is jam-packed with lots of restaurants, all offering both indoor and al fresco dining. Chez Leon is a century-old restaurant with 500 seats and is best known for its mussels. We ate steamed mussels in a white wine and garlic sauce, with tomato sauce and Belgian frites dipped in mayonnaise, not ketchup. Try it, you might get hooked! And the best thing to drink? Belgian beer, of course! After our delicious meal, we went to A La Mort Subite, near the 1873 Bourse or Stock Exchange. A La Mort Subite means "sudden death" and is a place where, apparently, people drowned their sorrows after losing all their money on the stock exchange. We tried a variety of different house beers, some using open fermentation and some classic bottled Belgian beers like Leffe. All are a little darker than American beers, some much darker. The pub culture thrives in Belgium and since beer is not considered alcohol, there is no minimum drinking age. I enjoyed the warm, antiquey atmosphere inside this bar ... and the house cat, too! Throughout the trip, I always had breakfast at my hotel, but the coffee and pastries are so good, you can find an excellent breakfast just about anywhere in Brussels. There are also innumerable choices of cafes offering lunch and dinner. We tried La Moule Sacree for lunch, right near Grand'Place. The prawns were huge! The next night, we dined at Le Saint Germain, a French-style brasserie right near the Hotel Le Plaza. The first course was a frissee salad with bits of bacon, Reblochon cheese and a mayo dressing, delicious and rich enough for a main course. Next were salmon and an African fish with potatoes. The meal was very good, very European.
STROLLING THE STREETS OF BRUSSELS
I loved shopping in the trendy fashion shops on Rue Antoine Dansaert, like Lula boutique and Comptoir des Cotonniers. The styles in Belgium are very different from the U.S. and here, beige and grey rule. My husband would be totally in style in Brussels! I then walked north from Le Grand'Place up a wide staircase to Mont des Arts, a beautiful French garden filled with lavender, roses and historic statues, on the way to the Royal Art Museum (Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, admission: 9 euro for adults). The large structure comprises two museums, the modern museum going underground and the older one above ground with the works of artists like Breughel the elder, Rubens and other artists that date back to the 15th century. The modern museum features works by Rene Magritte and another Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux, along with a host of other modern painters. The museum closes at 4:45pm and although I got there late, I was permitted to hang out in the main salon and enjoy the paintings. I also had access to the charming art cafe off the main salon that offers an awesome balcony view of Brussels. Though the museum was closing, my friends and I were never rushed out the door and allowed to savor our drinks. The museum shop stays open until 6pm and has great books and gifts. I did a lot of walking in Brussels, where I soaked in the ancient architecture, the European fashions and the museums. I can't wait to go back!
Join me next week for a side trip into Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium.
*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!
|Join Our Mailing List|
JohnnyJet.com • About Johnny • Publicity • Newsletter Archive Contact Us • Suggestions