I recently took a trip to Belgium with my boyfriend where we stayed in Brussels, the capital. We arrived around 9am and slouched off an early Ryanair flight, exhausted and grumpy. Luckily, the airport is attached to a train station for convenience.
Yet in our tired and confused state, we could not see any trains to Brussels on the screen. Thankfully, blue jacket clad helpers came to our rescue, quickly switching from French to English when they realised we were tourists. They pointed us in the direction of the right platform and train and we hopped on.
Brussels is a beautiful city. The architecture was mismatched and random, with some streets looking like Manhattan, others looking like Paris. The Guildhouses in Grand Place – the main square – were just exquisite, complete with gold lettering and polished sculptures. Each Guildhouse belonged to a certain guild, such as merchants, sailors and butchers.
There are a number of “free” walking tours which you can partake in. These of course are not truly free, you pay your guide whatever sum you feel appropriate at the end of the trip. We had a wonderful Flemish guide called David on our first day in the city.
Belgium as a country is quite divided and was artificially created in 1830. Most of the Belgians said that they are quite individualistic and have no real sense of identity as a country, which I found fascinating.
One of the negative points about Brussels is the impact terrorism has had on the city. Armed soldiers are present in most of the major tourist spots, which is a tad daunting for someone who is living in Ireland post Good Friday Agreement.
Wanda, our tour guide for the European and colonial tour, explained to us that 72 per cent of the population of Brussels is not from Belgium. She herself was born in Poland and was raised in Amsterdam, before she fell in love with Brussels and moved there. She explained that Brussels is like a group of little towns that make up a city, each with their own distinct architecture and culture.
The Belgians don’t take themselves too seriously either, which I loved. One of their most famous statues is Manneken Pis – literally a little boy peeing. The French occasionally dress him up in little outfits as a joke, a nod to when they tried to steal the statue in times long gone.
The food was also heavenly. I didn’t realise how into chips the Belgians are; chippers appear in the same frequency as coffee shops in Ireland. Their chips are also not salty, vinegary and greasy like ours, they are thinner and crispier. Waffles are also another delicacy on offer in Belgium. They are a truly delicious food, which can be sweet or savoury. I had a ham and cheese waffle, and also a sweet one, laden with fresh fruit.
Belgium is also famous for its beer. This renowned beverage was lost on me as I truly detest the taste of the stuff, however my boyfriend was greatly impressed with the range and the percentages of the beer (one was 12 per cent!).
Of course, I can’t neglect to mention the chocolate. There are so many chocolatiers to choose from, but all are equally divine. They are also relatively inexpensive for the quality you are getting.
I have to say I was thoroughly impressed with Belgium. The people were extraordinarily friendly. On one occasion we were wandering around, looking confused and using Google Maps on our phones. A woman, who looked like she was in a hurry, stopped us and asked if we needed help finding our destination. I was rather taken aback to see such a caring attitude from a stranger.
One place which you must visit if you do decide to go to Brussels is TonTon Garby, a small sandwich shop near the centre of the city. The owner of the shop, TonTon, is incredibly devoted to his job. No matter the length of the queue, he treats every customer as an individual, ensuring they get the right sandwich for them. When you try to thank him, he says “NO! I thank you, I thank YOU!” with such enthusiasm you can’t help but smile. Be prepared to wait for at least half an hour, but the positive atmosphere makes it all worthwhile. My experience in TonTon’s summed up Brussels as a whole: friendly and tasty!
Still here? Check this out: The Rise of Podcasts