Saturday, March 1, 2008

Mussels in Brussels

Last weekend, Andrew and I went on a mini-break to Brussels, Belgium. We met after work at St. Pancras station, which has just been renovated and restored to its Victorian-era wrought-iron-and-glass glory. The main terminal has a soaring barrel ceiling of glass panels, and we could see a little bit of the sunset through it as we stood and sipped glasses of champagne at the bar before boarding the train. It only took two hours for the Eurostar to whisk us under the English Channel, through northern France, and into Belgium. While not quite luxurious, it was at least as comfortable as an airplane, without the security hassle or pesky CO2 emissions. Besides, the retro feel of the whole enterprise was quite glamorous.

We arrived in Brussels with the familiar sense of anticipation we felt this summer each time we got to a new city. Confidently, we strolled through the station to find the subway that would take us to our hotel, but it took about ten minutes before we could even find the ticket machine. Then twenty minutes to figure out that the machine wouldn't take our card or the euro bills we got from the ATM. Then another ten minutes to find a place where we could get change. Okay, okay, we told ourselves. This is fine. So there aren't any signs in English, even though this is the capital city of the European Union and everyone speaks English. No worries. We finally got our tickets and went down to catch the subway. Well, I have been on many public transportation systems at this point, and I can confidently say that Brussels has the worst I've ever seen. And that includes Taltran.

We finally caught a subway, then waited ten minutes to catch another one, then emerged to find a bus to get us to the hotel. We found the right bus, but the driver said he was going in the other direction, so we crossed the street. Makes sense. right? Well, a bus pulled up there shortly, and it turned out it was the same driver. And he remembered me. And he yelled at me for wasting his time. (I don't know what it is with me and getting yelled at on public transportation.) I stomped off, and we found a map that showed that we were several blocks from the hotel, but we couldn't figure out how to catch the right bus, so we set off on foot. We walked and walked and walked. Way too far, as it turned out, but we just couldn't get our bearings. We found a boulevard with a name that looked familiar from the map (place names in Brussels are confusing, because everything is in French and Flemish), so we turned and walked down it. We soon ran out of sidewalk and came up against some metal barricades strung with copious amounts of rusty barbed wire. I thought we'd ended up in the trenches somehow! We looked around to see what was going on and noticed the stars and stripes streaming above a large, fortified building. Ah, the US embassy. The day before, a crowd had burned the US embassy in Serbia; I guess they were being extra careful at all the other embassies. We had to squeeze past the barbed wire and teeter on the edge of the busy street to get past the whole thing, with the armed guards eyeing us warily. In retrospect, I guess maybe we should have just flashed our passports or something. At any rate, we finally made it to the hotel and realized that it had taken us longer to get across half of Brussels than it had to get to Brussels from London!

However, once we got to the hotel, everything was perfect. The staff were super friendly and helpful, the hotel was beautiful and luxurious, and the concierge found a place for us to have dinner right away (it being nearly midnight at this point, this was quite a feat). We dropped off our bags and walked to the restaurant, which turned out to be utterly charming. We forgot about the struggles of the evening and settled in for a relaxing, romantic weekend.

The restaurant was a traditional Belgian affair, and the waiters only spoke French, but in a very friendly way. Andrew ordered for both of us, very quickly as the kitchen was about to close, and we ended up with two bottles of kriek, a delicious cherry-flavored beer. I had steamed mussels and french fries, and Andrew had carbonnade a la flamande, which is a braised beef stew. We ate and drank and laughed at the music (Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong played about ten times during our meal). We both leaned back in our chairs and soaked up the cozy atmosphere. The food was hearty and tasty, and the waiters showed me how to eat my mussels using an empty shell to pull the meat out of the other shells. They were tres impressed that I finished the whole pot! Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel and watched The Simpsons, which we have now seen in six countries and several languages! It's funny, no matter what language :-)

The next day, we slept in and then set out to see the city. We didn't have much on our list of things to see, which was part of the attraction of the city. We didn't have many specific expectations, so everything we found was a delightful surprise. We walked past the royal palace and over to the museum district, where we bought waffles from a street cart and ate them in a garden. Then we went to the modern art museum, which had several Rene Magritte paintings, a room full of James Ensors, and lots and lots of beautiful post-impressionist paintings by artists I'd never even heard of.

After the museum, we walked to the Place Grand Sablon, where we saw a beautiful church with delicate stonework and an antique market with stunning silver and jewels and ancient cookie and chocolate molds. I wanted to buy some, but they were heavy! The Grand Sablon is also where all the big chocolate shops are, and we did a bit of window shopping before we decided where to buy our chocolate later on. We had a nice lunch in a crowded cafe with art nouveau decorations. Victor Horta, one of the big art nouveau architects, lived in Brussels. We saw one of his buildings in the morning and got a spectacular view of the city from the rooftop terrace. I don't think he designed the cafe where we had lunch, but it was certainly inspired by his work. After lunch, we went to Wittamer to buy some fancy chocolates and a lovely little tea shop, where we got rose and cherry blossom loose leaf tea. For all the cultural significance Britons attach to tea, they don't offer a very wide selection of it in the shops; we had to go all the way to Belgium to find good tea. Then we went back to the hotel and, luxury of luxuries, we took a nap in the afternoon. Ahhhhhh.......

We woke up in time to eat our chocolates (flavored with earl grey tea, cinnamon, black pepper, lime, and amaretto) and get ready for dinner. It was fun to get really dressed up. I did my hair and fancy makeup and wore a nice dress and jewelry, and Andrew put on his nicest suit. We took a cab to the restaurant, another art nouveau stunner. Our table was in the middle of the restaurant, under a huge stained glass ceiling. We had comfy leather club chairs, and we were able to lean back and relax (a theme for the trip, you may have noticed). We got a bottle of white wine, which they kept cool in a little silver stand next to our table. The waiters were all wearing traditional Belgian aprons that looked like ships' sails, tied in the back with intricate knotted ropes. The overall atmosphere, though, was modern and sophisticated. We started with a couple of langoustines from the oyster bar. I'd never had a langoustine before, and I wanted to taste one. They are like miniature lobsters or giant shrimp, and they are sweet and juicy and delicious. Unfortunately, they are also rather difficult to get into, and we were cracking ourselves up trying to crack the shells open. We also got a nice little salad with the Belgian equivalent of prosciutto, and the waiters came by from time to time with baskets of warm bread and cold butter. Andrew got a gorgeous steak with french fries for dinner. His fries came in a little ceramic cone that kept them nice and hot. Very clever! I had sole meuniere, which is basically a fancy fried fillet of sole. It was cooked in lots of brown butter, and it was crispy and delicious. For dessert, Andrew had another waffle, with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I had ile flottante, which means floating island and is a little soft meringue floating in a sea of cold custard. Delicious! We had coffee that came with little squares of chocolate afterwards, and took a cab back to the hotel, stuffed and happy.

The next morning we got up early to see a little bit more of the city before we had to catch our train. We took a cab to the Grand Place, which is one of the main squares of the city. The place is lined with imposing baroque buildings with fantastical carvings of gargoyles and weird creatures. One of the buildings seemed to be covered in gold leaf. We found a cozy little restaurant with a roaring fire and had croissants and ham and cheese (like the continental breakfasts we had sometimes this summer) with fresh squeezed orange juice and delicious coffee, then walked around for a few minutes, caught a cab, and took the train back to London. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. We had just the right balance of food and culture and rest that we needed. Well done.

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