Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Blog posts: delay :(

As I mentioned over on Twitter, there has been a delay in posting my Eurovision reviews on here, mainly because I've misplaced my notes from the semi-finals and final.  I do have a rough idea where they may be, so it hopefully shouldn't be too long before they appear here.  

One of these years I'll be organised....

The Brussels Diaries: Day 5 - Saturday 16th May 2015

Technically it's not really 'Day 5' but at least we're not speeding off to Brussels Airport in the middle of the night.  Our afternoon flight means that we've got some time to hang out before we head to Central Station to catch our train to the airport.

I spotted this on a wall just off the Grand Place: the first Belgian flag no less!

I previously mentioned the Grand Place at night, but that fabulous architecture makes it a stunning sight in the daytime too.

But we must leave Brussels behind, but just before I go, there's one thing I'll be glad to say goodbye to - Brussels' pavements, their own little version of the Paris-Roubaix!  Thank goodness for my super-duper new trainers which didn't let me down when confronted with this....

But it's time to go, so we take the train from Brussels Centra(a)l(e) (delete as appropriate!) to Brussels Airport, where we are faced with the nightmare of not only self-checking-in but also doing the whole weighing and labelling your baggage stuff.  The machines have indeed taken over! At least the airport has a Pizza Hut so that's lunch sorted.  And it's a very smooth security process for such a big airport, unlike the unspeakably horrible shambles which is the new security hall at Edinburgh Airport.....

Anyway I digress.  We had a great time in Brussels last month, and the experience turned out to have a more therapeutic effect on me than I could ever imagine.  I came home feeling as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and in the weeks to follow, all the situations which had troubled me in my daily life before the holiday, and which I felt could never be resolved, began to lift, one by one. So that's another reason why holidays matter.  On the surface it may just be a few days away: but the longer lasting effects can be unexpectedly life-changing, and the memories will last forever.

The Brussels Diaries: Day 4 - Friday 15th May 2015

You know how they say, a picture speaks a thousand words?  Well, after yesterday's chocolate waffle, it's time for a strawberry one.  FOR BREAKFAST.  Life, obviously,  is good.

The good thing about going room-only in our hotel means that we can try out various breakfast dining options.  And when in Belgium.....well any time's a good time for waffles!!

We had some unfinished business from yesterday: the second route of the Brussels sightseeing bus tour.  Yesterday's route took us around the north of the city and up to the Atomium, while today's route takes us southwards in the direction of the European Parliament and back into the city centre, visiting some of Brussels' historic buildings, including the Palais Royal (below)

To get the full picture of Brussels and see as much of it in a short time you really need to do both routes of the sightseeing bus tour.  Today we're on the 'Europe' route, and we eventually arrive at the European Quarter, the home of the European Commission and all its associated buildings.  There is a visitors centre here for anyone who's into that sort of thing, but we're just happy to take the weight off our feet and stay on the bus.  With a blog title like EuropeCrazy you'd probably have expected us to leap off the bus and head straight to the visitors centre.  But time is short today, so here's a picture of the European Commission instead, as our bus passed it.

At the end of our bus tour we run the gauntlet in a very busy Rue des Bouchers for lunch.  Some of the waiters' "persuading" is verging on harassment and even subtle threats.  I don't ever remember their behaviour being so blatant on previous visits to Brussels, but it's made my mind up that we will not be dining here tonight!  And as it turned out, our lunch was very bland :(

After lunch we have one more must-see trip, to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre.  Belgium is very famous for its comic strips, the most famous of course are Tintin ....

and the Smurfs ...

...which are both celebrated here along with some lesser known comic strips like the amusing Boerke (or Dickie as he's known in French) which gets its own little exhibition.

Sections of the centre are dedicated to the journey of a comic strip, how it starts off life as a rough doodle and turns into an often sophisticated art.  There is also a temporary exhibition upstairs devoted to Polish comic book artist Rozinski and his epic Viking saga "Thorgal".

I wouldn't really call myself a comic strip/comic book fan, but you have to admire the talent and the work which goes into the creation of these works, and for that reason alone the Belgian Comic Strip Centre is well worth a visit.

Sadly time is getting on and we are on the last night of our holiday *sob* so after a coffee stop it's back to the hotel to do some packing and get ready for our final evening meal of the holiday at a very nice Indian restaurant just around the corner and down from the Rue des Bouchers.

Sorry no exterior pics but here you go, have a picture of some onion bhajis :)

That was just the beginning of a very delicious evening meal.  We couldn't fault the food we found in Brussels, but I would say that if you're going over there for a trip, check out some restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor and make a note of what you fancy and where to find it.  It will save you a lot of hard work and unneccessary searching when you get there!

Even though our holiday is over, it's Friday night and we still have some 'beer research' before the end of the night.  In a fine old bar just off the Bourse area south of Grand Place, I finally encounter Kwak.  Which is a famous Belgian beer served in a very unusual 'test tube' glass.

There is a good atmosphere in Brussels city centre on Friday night although as in most cities you should always take all the relevant steps to stay safe, and do your research in advance to ensure that you keep away from the 'danger' areas.

We take a late night stroll around a busy Grand Place before our final beer of the evening.

It would have been very tempting to stay out a lot later but we are going home tomorrow so we call it a night at just after 1.00 am.

The Brussels Diaries: Day 3 - Thursday 14th May 2015

After our day spent exploring the city centre yesterday, we're venturing a little further afield and going on a sightseeing bus tour.  It's a public holiday in Belgium today (Ascension Day) but you wouldn't really know it.  Although the big department stores are closed, it's business as usual for the smaller/souvenir shops whilst cafes, bars and restaurants remain open.  

Before we head off on our tour though, we have a stroll around the Bourse area, where there's some street entertainment going on - I wonder if that's a regular thing or just because it's a holiday today?  
Something else going on this week is the Pride festivities.  There's a big parade taking place on Saturday (the day we're going home) but in the meantime there are rainbow signs all over this part of town....

...and the Bourse itself has been rainbow-fied for the occasion too.

On today's to-do list: some frites.  Belgium is very well-known for its high quality chips!  All those years ago when I first visited Belgium, frites and curry ketchup were an essential part of those holidays, so we had to repeat that experience.  Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence to share with you.  I was too busy eating them :)

After lunch we're off on our bus tour.  As there are two routes on the Brussels sightseeing tour, we're splitting this over two days.  Today we're on our way to Brussels' other famous landmark - one which is considerably larger in size than the Manneken Pis!  

It's mid-afternoon by the time we arrive at the Atomium.  There's lots of people taking selfies and trying to fit the impressive space-age structure into their pictures.  As you can see, today is cloudier and cooler than yesterday, but the temperatures are still decent enough for us to leave our jackets behind at the hotel.  

We knew it was going to be busy, but we weren't prepared for the extremely lengthy queues to get to the top.  (This was very reminiscent of that time a few years ago during one of our Paris trips, when we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower around 9.00pm on a Sunday night, only to discover unimaginably long queues).  Bearing in mind the time of day, and the cut-off time for the sightseeing bus which stops running quite early at this time of year, we decided not to join the queue, or we might end up abandoned at the Atomium!

There's a lot going on in this part of town: to the left, there's an Eddy Merckx exhibition going on in the same hall, where if I believe rightly, the 1987 Eurovision Song Contest took place.  To the right, there's the Kineopolis and Mini-Europe; again we had to give Mini-Europe a miss due to lack of time. We've already decided that if/when we ever come back to Brussels, we're going to head on over here very early in the morning and get in that Atomium queue :)  There is also a nice little food village over there next to Mini-Europe so lunch would be taken care of next time!  

Rain has been forecast today, and it starts to fall just as we get back on the bus to make our way back to the city's teatime by now and there is one more thing on today's to-do list.  WAFFLES! With chocolate.  And cream.  And more chocolate :)) Feast. Your. Eyes. Words just can't describe the wonder of this.

Then it's back to the hotel to get ready for dinner tonight.  Tuesday night was Belgian-themed cuisine, Wednesday night was Persian, and on a rainy Thursday night we're dining at a Lebanese restaurant called the Al Barmaki.

Where, or course, among other tasty things there's hummus on the menu.

As I mentioned in the previous post there's a great variety of international dining options in this city and all tastes are cared for, so don't worry if the usual Belgian fare isn't to your taste.  This Lebanese restaurant hasn't disappointed and we have another delicious meal.

Of course there are challenges eating out in Brussels, particularly if you are either completely vegetarian, or a chicken-eating three-quarters veggie like myself, but most menus should have something: although it must be said that most of the fixed-price bargain menus around the Rue des Bouchers tourist trap don't always have a veggie/chicken option.

After dinner, it's time to explore another couple of bars in and around the town centre.  One of these is Au Bon Vieux Temps, further down Rue Marche aux Herbes.  This little bar is hidden down a close and when you enter the bar you go back 300 years - yes that's how long Au Bon Vieux Temps has been there.  The interior is pretty stunning too - check out that stained glass window.

Tomorrow: we're back on the bus...

The Brussels Diaries: Day 2 - Wednesday 13th May 2015

Although we are perfectly situated near the Grand Place, Brussels is a much bigger city than it looks. In the next two instalments we're taking a sightseeing tour beyond the city centre, but today is all about exploring the city centre and checking out the shopping as well.

Today turned out to be a very warm day indeed, and I hadn't predicted that sunburn would figure in my spring break agenda, but oh yes it did - before any of you get alarmed, I did put my factor 50+ sun protection on, but missed a bit :(

I mentioned beer last night, so here we go again.  Although there's very little in the way of supermarkets in central Brussels, there are several corner shops/off-licences and there are also quite a few specialist beer shops in the city centre, selling numerous different brands and flavours of beer, with matching glasses.  Here's one of those shops, just off the Grand Place.

We're not too far away from that very famous Brussels tourist attraction, yes the one which you see and then go...."is that it?"  I'm referring to the one and only Manneken Pis.  In case you are living on Mars and haven't heard of Manneken Pis, it's a famous statue of a little boy peeing.  And there are always tons of bemused tourists heading down to that street corner, expecting MP to be, well, bigger, instead of this tiny little statue which requires a zoom lens if you're going to take his picture :)

This morning I took a photo of a little row of Greek restaurants in a street just off Grand Place.

We return to one of these restaurants for an alfresco lunch.  It's a very warm day, and by the time lunchtime comes around it's very hot indeed.  A very nice and filling lunch, but that's when I got my sunburn :(

After lunch, it was time to go shopping.  One of the big highlights from our holidays over the years has been a trip to a record shop (or two) to buy some CDs.  Sometimes these have been planned purchases, sometimes they have been accidental discoveries.  But it was always a highlight nevertheless.  In these days of Spotify and streaming, the record shop is an endangered species.  In Brussels, the Virgin Megastore and the Free Record Shop are no longer around, so we had to walk to the end of Rue Neuve to the City 2 mall to find FNAC.  We've been regular FNAC-goers on previous holidays so it's good to see this store is still around.  The Brussels branch has a decent enough selection of CDs, although these will never match up to the selection available online. But purchases are made (reviews to follow in due course) and on the way back up Rue Neuve we are greeted by this sight.

Yes folks, this is Primark.  And that line of people at the door are queuing to get in. Now this is a sight you'd probably associate with some big sale going on, but no, this is Primark and that is all.  For like many other cities in Europe, Brussels is full of rather overpriced clothes shops, interrupted by the odd discount chain, so the Primark experience is something else.  Looking at the stampede, I wondered if the shop had just opened today.  (When I got home, I did some research and discovered that the store had been open since December 2014 - and they were queuing then as well!)

After an enjoyable, but tiring day, it was time to go back to the hotel to get some rest before tonight's dinner.  There's a massive selection of international cuisine to choose from in Brussels, and tonight's choice was a terrific restaurant called the Caspian.

The Caspian is a small and very welcoming restaurant serving delicious Iranian cuisine.  Including one very, very delicious chicken kebab....

After a delicious meal we didn't have too far to go for our next hangout, which was just next door!

The Goupil le Fol is a very dark, freaky, eccentric and mysterious French-chanson-themed bar. I don't have any pictures as it was probably too dark in there.  My request for a kriek was declined as they don't seem to serve fruit beers, but they did serve their very own fruit wine, so I had a raspberry wine which was very nice.  We stayed on the ground floor but if you go upstairs the very quirky theme continues - it's unlike any other bar I've seen in a long time.

Finally we head onwards to an outdoor bar where I finally get my fruity beer.  This glass which the beer was served in looks very familiar indeed, as I bought it a few years ago on a previous trip to Belgium!

Tomorrow: we're off to the Atomium!

The Brussels Diaries: Day 1 - Tuesday 12th May 2015

Taking a trip to Brussels is like taking a trip back in time.  Belgium was my first ever real holiday abroad with faithful travelling companion (apart from a mini-cruise to Amsterdam) and in our early days Belgium was the default holiday destination, and this would always involve a day trip to Brussels.  But is there more to Brussels than a day trip?  We decided that this question would finally be answered when we chose Brussels for this year's spring break destination, once we discovered that there were direct flights from Edinburgh to Brussels Airport.

(image courtesy of YouTube)

So we headed off on Tuesday 12th May on the very small but perfectly formed Brussels Airlines plane. It's a short and very pleasant flight lasting approximately only an hour and a half.  Just like many other airports in Europe, it's an integrated travelling experience.  Your flight lands, passport control is quick and painless, and you make your way to the airport's own train station which is in the basement of the airport.  Although Belgium is a very small country it has an incredibly well-connected train system, After another quick and painless experience of buying train tickets, it's an effortless connection between the airport and Brussels Central station, just a 15-20 minute train ride away.  The scariest thing about this is the steep climb from the platform on to the train - you really do need to mind the gap!

Usually the 'travelling day' can be very stressful but our taxi/train/bus/plane/train combination was surprisingly smooth.  And there was one final transport element: walking.  Happily though, it was only a few minutes' walk from the station to our hotel, which as locations go has to be one of the best and most central we have ever had: just minutes away from the Grand Place/Grote Markt which is one of Brussels' most famous and scenic sights, and I have that all-important 2015 must-have - a reliable wi-fi connection to catch up with the Eurovision rehearsals going on this week.

After what's felt like weeks of torrential rain, high winds and generally horrible weather, it's a joy to arrive in a city pleasantly baked in sunshine, without feeling too hot.  So with all the check-in formalities out of the way, let's put the telly on, shall we?

Guess what's on RTBF La Une tonight.....only this :)

So we're doing our unpacking to Anne-Marie David, The Herreys etc before heading out into the city for out evening meal.  There is so much choice around but we take the easy option and head for that legendary Brussels culinary tourist trap: the Rue des Bouchers.

Many years ago, during those day trips to Brussels, we stopped off at the Rue des Bouchers for lunch. In those pre-almost-vegetarian days, I was open to trying the likes of mussels but my meal choices are more curtailed these days.  The good value set menus which line the Rue des Bouchers present a particular challenge for veggies/almost veggies: however we quickly found a restaurant whose a la carte menu provided more appealing options.  Including onion soup, which I haven't had since the last time I was in Paris....

After what turns out to be a very nice meal there is another must-do thing - check out the Grand Place at night.  We didn't expect the grand by name, grand by nature buildings to be so spectacularly illuminated at night.  But they are.  And aren't they stunning?

So Brussels has already brought the "wow factor".  The next thing we need to do tonight?  Well, we are in Belgium.  Beer is inevitable.

For the uninitiated, Belgium is very famous for its many, many beers. Now I am not generally a beer drinker but love the Belgian fruit beers - Kriek (cherry), Framboise (raspberry) and Cassis (blackcurrant) so there was no prizes for guessing that my first beer in Brussels would be a Kriek (pictured above).  Of course every bar menu has tons of beers to choose from, all with their own individual matching glass, - I love that! - and many of these vary in alcohol strength so if you want to try out beers in Belgium, please drink responsibly of course!  It was extremely interesting to see the contrast between our own country's drinking culture, where drinking to get drunk seems to be a national sport, whereas over in Brussels, despite all that choice of beer, there was very little evidence of drunkenness as far as we could see.

It's been a long day but it's no early night for us though as we are enjoying the late night Brussels life, You wouldn't expect a Tuesday night to be busy but the city is buzzing and there's a good atmosphere.  A very nice way to end the evening!

In the next instalment:  sightseeing and shopping.  And more beer.