Christmas Visit to Belgium – Brussels

One of the advantages of living in Europe is that short hops over the border land you in new cultures to be explored. After less than two hours the flight from Marseilles was landing at the Brussels airport and we were soon rolling our bags down the cobbled streets sparkling with Christmas cheer.

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Our hotel, really an apartment owned by the Fish Market B&B, is located in the northwest corner of the center near the St. Catherine metro stop. A neighborhood filled with restaurants and markets and yet just a 10 minute walk to the Grand Place it’s a convenient base for exploring the city. Quiet, cozy and comfortable, the one bedroom place is decorated in mid century modern.  The kitchen is small yet serviceable and the bathroom sizable for a small apartment.  The sitting room windows display St Catherine’s church lit in rotating array of colors for the Christmas season.

At this time of year, St. Catherine’s square is filled with rows of small stalls that make up the Christmas Market. A large white Ferris wheel anchors one end of the square with St Catherine’s Church at the other. Locals huddle around small outdoor tables warming themselves with genever, the local gin, and other hot beverages.

For dinner we walked around the corner to the homey La Villette, located at 3 Rue du Vieux Marche aux Grains. Decked with red and white checkered table cloths, the restaurant serves traditional Belgian cuisine. At 9:30 the cozy downstairs dining room was less than half full – a couple of loyal single dinners and a table of airline employees who were also distinctly repeat customers. The food, if not overly inventive, is solidly good. Pommes frites and other fried side dishes are served seconds after they leave the fry kettle. Mussels were cooked with garlic and butter – à l’escargot. The pintadeaux, a type of guinea fowl, was served in a flavorful beer and cherry sauce. The aiguille in green sauce, however, was mildly disappointing – a small portion of bony eel served in an underwhelming herbed sauce. Service is delightfully friendly turning casual drop-ins into loyal patrons.

Thursday morning we wake to drizzle that lasts the entire day.  A great day to visit the museums. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts houses both ancient and modern collections as well as the popular Magritte Museum. Generally reservations are recommended for the Magritte to avoid lengthy queues, but in December there were few tourists browsing the works of this favorite surrealist native son.  While the museum offers an informative retrospect of the life and career of Magritte, his most well known themes are sadly missing – not a bowler hat in sight!

Touring the rest of the collections we specifically sought out the Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony,  Hieronymus Bosch

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and found this painting, The Fall of the Rebel Angels  by Pieter Bruegel I. A 16thcentury painting that ventures into unknown worlds where the artist renders creatures from the deepest corners of his imagination with the utmost precision. If only the surrealists were this good.

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Back on the street it is still raining. We head towards the Grand Place for lunch andhopefully wait out the persistent drizzle. At les Chapeliers, a cozy low ceilinged establishment on Rue des Chapeliers just off the Grand Place, we order the onion soup, the herring starter and mussels. And of course beer – Grimbergen. While probably more food than we needed – the appetizer portions were big enough for a light lunch – the food was excellent. The highlight was definitely the pickled herring rolled around pickled onions and served with a lemon caper crème fraiche.

Still drizzling ugh! Next on the agenda is a tour of the Grand Place, one of the most impressive squares in Europe. The detail of the surrounding buildings, even in the rain, will make you stop to take a second and third look.

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The gray day is greatly cheered by the colorful lights strung across the quaint cobbled streets lined with chocolate shops.

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We stop in to sample some of the offerings. While Bruyerre has a charming shop on the Place the chocolate does not compare to that of the better known Nuehaus.

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The last big, or rather tiny, sight on this quick tour of Brussels  – Manneken-Pis. When they say this icon of Brussels is small they are not kidding. Tucked away in a small corner fountain it would be missed except for the tourists posing in front of it and the fact that it is flanked by two of Belgium’s most well known chocolate brands, Godiva and Neuhaus. Down yet another one of Brussel’s charming cobbled streets it’s worth the short walk from the Place.

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The Grand Place after dark.

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Dinner at Vismet, a more hip than traditional restaurant located on St Catherine’s place across from the Novotel. This is one of those seafood establishments that is all about the fish with a simple décor to match simple preparations. Just good, no, great fish. Our waiter was rather impatient having to explain the long list of specials scrawled in small French cursive on two sides of a piece of plain copy paper. Really, if they want patrons to be able to read the menu, they should write bigger, legibly, provide better lighting or preferably all of the above.

The crustacean appetizer (couldn’t read the exact name) was a delightful pile of cold seafood – sweet shrimp, snails, tiny grey shrimp, and crab topped with three super fresh oysters on the half shell. The big disappointment of the evening was the mushy crab. I don’t know if this is some crazy Belgian style of cooking crab, but it was truly dreadful. Considering everything else was fresh and well prepared, I can’t even begin to imagine what went wrong with crab. I asked the waiter. He knew exactly what I was talking about but claimed that it was perfectly normal. All I can say is “YUCK”!

On to the fabulous fish mains. Don’s barbue, similar to turbot, beautifully cooked in a simple beurre blanc and one of the best fish dishes he has ever eaten. My three solette, a small species related to sole, bare on the plate, needed no alteration, again perfectly cooked and wonderfully fresh served with a side of fries and a light salad. By this time I had almost forgotten about the awful crab. Come for the fish; stay away from the crab!

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