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December 31, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Brussels, Belgium

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Happy New Year! Last week, we left off in Brussels, just after touching down on a flight from New York on my new favorite airline -- Jet Airways. I arrived at Brussels Airport (BRU) at 6:58am, which was 50 minutes ahead of schedule. However, all the passengers were asked to remain seated because some idiot in business class -- a well dressed Belgian -- claimed he'd left an envelope in the bathroom with ...get this ... $10,000! No one, not even the flight attendants, were sure what was going to happen; this was a first for everyone on board. After several announcements, thorough checks of his seat and the bathroom trash, the money never turned up (if there was any in the first place) and all passengers were free to deplane. Lesson learned: Don't leave valuables in the bathroom, especially not ten grand!

Jet Airways is India's second largest carrier and has an efficient hub in Brussels. In fact, they have seven flights: three from North America (EWR, JFK, YYZ) and four from India (BOM, DEL, MAA, BLR), coming in and out of Brussels within minutes of each other. The majority of Jet Airways passengers were of Indian descent and appeared to be connecting to other Jet Airways flights so there was no line at passport control -- just a long walk to get there. Those transferring have a three-hour layover and those fortunate enough to be flying business class, have access to one of Jet Airways' lounges, which have comfortable chairs, free food, drinks and showers. Otherwise, you can wander the terminal and peruse the airport shops where you'll find all the major and famed Belgian chocolatiers.

When I planned this trip around the world, I had the option of going straight to India or breaking the flight up with a stop somewhere. Instead of taking two long back-to-back flights, I prefer to break the flight up by making a stop somewhere; it makes for a more pleasant experience and it's easier on the body (i.e. adjusting to the time change.) Since I'd never been to Brussels in the winter, just the summer, and Natalie (who met me in the Brussels airport) had never been to Belgium period, we decided to overnight there. BTW: The immigration officers were really cool. We sat and chatted for a few minutes and they even got up to check on Natalie's flight arrival time for me.

If you haven't heard, over the past few weeks, the euro has been fluctuating like contestants' weight on The Biggest Loser. At one point, it had dipped down to $1.25 from an all-time high of 1.60 (April 22, 2008) but after the Federal Reserve recently lowered the target lending rate, it gained again. At press time, it was $1.41. Click here to find the current rate.

A taxi from BRU into the city takes between 20 and 40 minutes (depending on traffic) and costs around 25 euro. The cheapest and fastest way to travel to the city is by train. The train leaves the airport every 15 minutes or so from 5am until 12:15am. It takes approximately 15 to 25 minutes (depending on which train you take) and costs just 2.85 euro ($4 USD). Note: Most low-fare carriers fly into Charleroi Airport, which is about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Brussels.

The city center (the Brussels-Central railway station) is the second stop and because I've been to Brussels before, I knew the main area (Grand'Place) was within walking distance. I also knew that our hotel was nearby but didn't know exactly where, nor had I bothered to map it out in advance like a dodo-brain. Fortunately, there was a huge location map on a nearby street corner, which proved to be much more helpful than anyone in the station or the few random passersby. And everyone, it seemed, parle Francais except moi. All I can say are a few token phrases like bonjour, and je m'appel Johnny Jet. But not important phrases like, Where the heck is The Dominican Hotel? I was wise enough to show the address to some shop owners but quickly learned that it was on an obscure street that no one had really heard of. The most helpful people to ask in a case like this are hotel clerks and taxi drivers. Turns out that the hotel was indeed just a seven-minute walk from the train station. Taxis don't want to take passengers for such a small fare, which is another reason to pack light so you can walk.

Belgium boasts that they are home to 400 beers, 2,200 chocolate shops and 35 UNESCO sites. Well, you can find most of these claims to fame in the country's capital city, Brussels. Brussels is the center of Belgium. The name Brussels is derived from the old Dutch word "bruocsella" which means: "marsh (bruc) home (zele)" or marshland, which is what the area once was. The official languages of Brussels are French and Dutch, though French is much more widely used here. Many speak German and Flemish (a Dutch dialect) as well. In Brussels, all streets signs are in French and Flemish. Brussels (or Bruxelles, en Francais), has an area of 62 square miles (99 square kilometers) and the population is just over one million. Throughout the years, Brussels has been subject to many rulers; the French, Spanish, Austrian and Dutch, for example. The country's history is long and varied, far too detailed to recount here, but if you're interested in more information, click here.

When is the best time to visit Brussels? The city gets a lot of rain all year round. But with their mild, maritime climate, it rarely gets really cold -- except when I come into town. The period from November to March has the coldest weather, with temperatures ranging from about 4°C to 7°C (that's between 39°F and 45°F). But if you hate crowds, this is also when there are fewer tourists than usual and cheaper prices. The hottest months are July and August, when the highs average around 22°C (72°F). But even when the weather is horrible, there's still a lot to see indoors. There are tons of shopping arcades and over 100 museums. One of those is The Belgium Center For Comics Strips. Comics are very popular here. The most famous are Tintin and The Smurfs.

A friend had recommended the year old, 150-room Dominican Hotel. It's housed in a historic building with high ceilings and used to be the home of well-known French painter Jacques-Louis David, who died in 1825. The hotel and lobby have a modern design and the clerks behind the front desk were friendly and spoke perfect English like most Belgians in the tourism industry. The cozy room had a warm and neutral color palette. It was a good size with a comfortable bed, a working desk (free Wi-Fi!), a flat screen TV (with a few English channels) and a typical European shower without a door. I usually hate showers without a door because they make a big mess but this one did a decent job of directing the water to the drain. There's lots of closet space and be sure to open the secret door behind which you'll find the main light switch, a safe and robes. It's nice and hidden so a thief wouldn't find it. The best part about the Dominican is its central location. It's in a historic part of Brussels, on the Rue Léopold behind the theatre La Monnaie and just a few blocks away from the Grand'Place. The Dominican, Leopoldstraat 9, 1000 Brussels; Tel: 0032(0) 2-203-08-08

Occasionally, it was snowing outside which made the city spectacular. The first stop we made was at the jaw-dropping, spectacular Grand'Place. Walking through here is like traveling back in time. Oh my gosh: If this square is not one of the grandest places I've ever laid eyes upon, I don't know what is. Grand'Place dates back to the 12th century. In the mid-14th century, it was Brussels' most popular marketplace. In 1695, King Louis XIV of France bombed the area and destroyed all but one of the original buildings. That building was Town Hall, which is still today, the seat of the Mayor of Brussels and can only be visited on a guided tour. All the other Guild Houses were rebuilt in four years. Those 17th-century replacements still stand today and are more than sufficient for impressing not only me but the hoards of gawking tourists as well. Free concerts take place here every weekend, all day and most of the night. There are plenty of surrounding restaurants and cafes to get a front row seat but they aren't cheap. Besides, it's better in the summer when outdoor seating is available.

One of the buildings in the Grand'Place, the Bread House ("Broodhuis" in Dutch) stores Manneken Pis' 700 costumes, as well as the original Manneken Pis stone statue, which is three times the size of the bronze statue you'll see on the street for display today. If you have no idea what the heck I'm talking about, that's okay. I had no clue either on my first visit. Manneken Pis is the symbol of Brussels. Who would ever have thought that a statue of a little boy peeing would become a symbol of the city? In the mid-14th century, Manneken Pis was first carved in stone and called Little Julian. In 1619, a bronze version of the boy was made. There are several legends behind the history and importance of the statue. According to one such legend, this has become a symbol of Brussels because he's a freedom fighter; a rebellious little boy who also conveys the humor of the people of Brussels. You wouldn't believe the crowds that line up to see this kid! He's behind a gate because he's been kidnapped several times, most recently by students in the 1970s. One special day in November, the boy pees beer. And on many occasions he's dressed in costume.

One of the most cost effective ways to get around Brussels is by getting a Brussels Card. Visitors can get 24 hours (20 euro), 48 hours (28 euro), or 72 hours (33 euro) of free access to 26 museums, public transportation, a city map and discounts up to 25% for attractions, shops, bars and restaurants.

Natalie and I got a two-hour city tour set up through the Brussels Tourism Board (they can arrange a guide for you, too). Didier Rochette was a nice bloke and very knowledgeable; he sure knew his Belgian history, important dates, beer, and chocolate, all like it was written on the back of his hand. However, he gave me one bad piece of advice and I blame myself for listening to him. When he picked us up at the hotel, I suggested we get an umbrella from the receptionist, noting the heavy clouds in the sky. He insisted we didn't need one because it was too windy and an umbrella would just blow inside out anyway, he said. I stupidly followed his advice. The weather was decent when we began the tour but as visitors to Brussels will quickly learn, the weather can change on a dime. Precipitation came down in the form of snowflakes (beautiful) and rain (yikes), which is really unpleasant when it's just one degree above freezing and you're not properly attired. Once the wet stuff began to fall, I noticed everyone had umbrellas but us. Didier had a rain repellent winter jacket with a hood on. I had on a too-small winter cap that I'd bought in a tourist shop for 6 euro. Natalie was dressed like she was going to a fashion show.

I got wet but nothing like Natalie did because I didn't care about being rude; when our guide was explaining something in the middle of the street while it was pouring, I just kept walking to the nearest awning, shaking my head in disbelief that I didn't have an umbrella to beat him with. Natalie looked like a drowned rat and her teeth were chattering so badly, I was forced to cut the tour short by an hour. Natalie and I ran back to the room, took hot showers and used the hair dryer to dry our sopping clothes. Lesson learned: Always be prepared for the weather and follow your gut instincts.

Didier did point out two of the best chocolate shops in the area: Neuhaus and Corné Port-Royal. They have shops all around the city and we spotted them in the King, Queen, or Prince Galleries (the galleries have been around since 1847). On my last trip to Brussels, I learned about Pierre Marcolini and Wittamer, which are arguably the best chocolate shops in Brussels. I also learned that the little round crisp waffles I'm so addicted to, sold on the street and in every other shop, are originally from Liege, not Brussels.

Brussels serves food from all over the world and has something to suit every budget. When Natalie and I first arrived, we enjoyed Belgian waffles at Aux Gaufres de Bruxelles, which is probably one of the most touristy places in town. But it's centrally located and when a girl is hungry and it's sleeting outside, you better act fast or watch out! The waffles were okay but the service was horrendous.

Rue des Bouchers has to be the most famous and touristy street in Brussels on which to have dinner. The narrow, cobbled street looks like it's straight out of a fairytale book, with quaint little restaurants lined up one after another. Didier informed us that most of the restaurants are pretty to look at with all their incredible fresh seafood displays luring customers inside, but only five restaurants, he said, are not tourist traps and have all been around for ages. According to Didier, your best options are Scheltema, L'Ogenblik, Restaurant A-letage, Aux Armes de Bruxelles and Vincent.

We went to Vincent and made a dinner reservation while we on our afternoon tour since it was Saturday and we wanted to guarantee our table for the evening. Inside there's a hand-painted ceramic mural of fishermen at sea, an open kitchen so you can see the chefs walk to the window, grab a piece of fine cut meat and then put the finishing touches (flambé) on all their dishes in the center of the restaurant. When Natalie and I arrived at 7pm, the place was only a quarter full but it slowly began filling up -- the Belgians eat late. I had the waterzooi, which is a classic stew of Northern Belgian cuisine and its Dutch name translates to a "watery mess". My mess was filled with boiled chicken and vegetables in a cream sauce (17 euro). It looked gnarly but was really tasty.

Natalie had an American-style portion of moules-frites (mussels with fries). Mussels are the national dish of Belgium. Most come from the North Sea and they are in season from September to February. I'm not a huge seafood fan but I always share them, especially when they are soaked in butter and white wine. There are a variety of mussel recipes but traditionally, they are made with white wine, shallots, parsley and butter and served in a large, steaming pot with a side order of Belgian frites and mayonnaise (23 euro). One method for eating them is to use an empty shell as a rudimentary but effective pair of tweezers, to pull the slimy creature out of its shell. The problem with going to France, Belgium or pretty much anywhere in Europe is that the bread and butter are so good, I end up mauling them the moment the basket hits the table. Vincent was no different. The waiter was friendly but the service was patchy.

Dessert at Vincent: Are you kidding me? There are chocolate shops on every corner. Godiva was founded here in 1926 but we didn't bother going into this universal store. Instead of satisfying our sweet tooth at Vincent, we walked through the Grand'Place (it's much nicer at night) and then did a chocolate shop hop for late night snacks and gifts to take home.

The next morning we were up early. We had a quick breakfast at the hotel just as they began serving at 7am. The food was really good -- especially their freshly squeezed juices, pastries, croissants and American eggs and bacon. We then made the vigorous seven-minute walk in the dark up the cobblestone sidewalks to the train station. We were told a taxi wouldn't come for us so instead we lugged our bags. There was no line at the ticket window and we made the 7:40am express train and were at the BRU airport in plenty of time to make our 10:05am flight to New Delhi.

Here's a short Johnny Jet video of this trip to Brussels and here's a link to the video of my trip in 2007. Plus, we have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on YouTube, too.

Next week: New Delhi. See you in 2009!

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Jet Airways and the Tourist Office of Flanders.

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Copyright 2009 JohnnyJet, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Pictures From

The Trip


Jet Airways


BRU Airport


Jet Airways Lounge


Train To City


Express Train Seats


Slow Train Seats


Brussels-Central Railway Station


Map of City


Belgium Flag


It's Snowing!


Hotel Street


Dominican Hotel


Hotel Receptionist


My Room






Nice Hat


Grand'Place at Night


Crowd Around Naughty Boy


Manneken Pis


Manneken Pis Dressed Up




Corné Port-Royal


Neuhaus Advent Calendar


Random Waffle Shop


Belgian Waffle


Rue des Bouchers


Rue des Bouchers Seafood Display


Chef at Vincent


Inside Vincent's




Breakfast At Hotel


Going Back To Station


Tourist Store




    December 24, 2008 CrankyFlier

  • *If you heard about us somewhere else or have the link to the story please email Johnny Jet media and let us know where!
  • Top notch as always....Merry Christmas and all the best for the New Year... Roy L - Florida

  • The video was awesome. Jet Airways is awesome. Wish I was going to India that would be quite the flight. Loved those seats! And the food looked great too! Enjoy your travels. Carma J. - Iowa

  • Very well done...thank you for a great read and enjoy your Holidays...Shirley R – Canandaigua Lake, New York

  • Call me a fogey, but I'm glad you went back to the old format, too. Merry Christmas to you and Natalie; if you didn't take her to Bruges on your trip to Belgium, it's another reason to go back to see for yourself why Bruges (Brugge if you'd prefer to read it in Flemish) is known as the "Venice of the North". I am a little surprised you didn't get to use the WiFi in the Admirals Club at JFK because American Airlines has had free Internet access there for about six months. If you're an Admirals Club member your membership number is the password; if not, you do need to stop by the front desk to get a PIN number to log in. I guess for some reason they're concerned that people will hang out just outside the club poaching the WiFi. I don't know why that would be a problem, but.... Gregg W -- Arlington, Virginia

  • Thanks for your column on Jet Airways -- I did not know about them. My neighbor usually flies Continental direct Newark to Mumbai and he said thanks as well. My favorite place in Brussels is the Terrace Cafe of the Hotel Metropole. The Metropole is still the most civilized hotel in Brussels. Have a Merry Christmas wherever you are and to your dad who has become part of our online family. Jon H - Lake Worth, FL

  • I can't thank you enough for the great article and pictures of the Solstice. It was most informative as we are leaving in February for a cruise on this ship... Thanks again... Carol I -

  • My airline colleagues have mentioned your website many times, and finally I was able to have a moment to check it out. Congrats to you. It is very thorough and interesting as well. I was also personally touched by the tribute to your mother, how very, very special. Jacqueline P – New York

  • Re Passport Photos: You can get them from Walmart for $0.19. Jake H - Dalton, Ga

  • Anxious to read next weeks report! Sandra B -

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