Thursday 4 September 2014

Going Local in Brussels

There once was a romantic comedy film about a frantically paced European coach tour entitled If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.

On Tuesday, at least the museums would be open.

I found myself in the Belgian capital Brussels on a Sunday and Monday, the worst days of the week to visit a mainland European country. On Sunday, many of the shops were shut; on Monday nearly all the museums closed their doors.

I was in the city as part of a rail journey from London to Berlin, provided courtesy of Railbookers, a company which arranges rail journeys and accommodation. I'll be writing about the full experience later for an Australian magazine.

Anyway, I'd spent Monday morning out at the Waterloo battlefield some 25km from the city, and had been dropped off back in Brussels near Grand Place, at a bit of a loose end.

This area, as you can see, could be described as "touristy", with lots of frites, waffles and set menus:

Despite the tourist hordes and the occasional impassable tour group, however, there were these marvellous facades to enjoy in Grand Place itself:

Rather than eat there, I decided to follow up on a good restaurant I'd researched in the Ixelles district to the southeast of the centre, which served Belgian specialties. After a Metro and bus ride, I found Volle Gas on the attractive Place Fernand Cocq:

Sadly, I then fell foul of a rule which bedevils travellers in France and apparently also in the French-speaking part of Belgium. The kitchen had closed for lunch at exactly 2pm, and nothing could make it reopen until the evening.

So, hungry as I was, I wandered along the square and wondered what to do. Then I noticed a little cafe-bar a few doors down, Le Bar Parallele, with a view of the gardens and apparently full of locals.

So I joined them. Sitting inside to avoid cigarette smoke, having a burger and frites with a glass of local beer, I soon felt very comfortable indeed.

This was a local experience that was impossible to enjoy around Grand Place. Here I was among the Bruxellois, sitting at a metal-topped table in a slightly worn bar, feeling faintly like an extra in a foreign movie.

Around me people were chatting and reading books, sometimes accompanied by dogs on leads, enjoying a sunny afternoon with no tour groups in sight.

It wasn't like trekking through a jungle or climbing a mountain, but it felt good to have left the beaten track and been accepted among the locals.

Disclosure time: I'm travelling across Europe by train courtesy of Railbookers.

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