Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Brussels with Garrett & Nicole

Last Wednesday afternoon, we made the three-hour train trip from Amsterdam to Brussels making a few intermediate stops along the way. We arrived in Brussels in the late afternoon and then went through what was becoming our usual first arrival step of figuring out where we were and how to use the public transportation to get to our hotel. I’ve become well acquainted with reading the bus routes and schedules in Enschede and I’ve had months of experience with the Paris Metro, so I assumed that there would be no problem deciphering the Brussels Metro. It was actually a bit more complicated than I thought. Thankfully while we were trying to analyze the map, a very friendly Belgian man helped us find where we needed to go and even brought us to the correct platform even though he wasn’t even going that way. Thanks to his help, we managed to get to the Metro station nearest to our hotel. After another few moments of getting our bearings at street level, we were able to make our way to the hotel and check in. It was no houseboat, but we had a very affordable and very nice apartment style hotel suite with a living room and kitchenette.

After a few minutes of getting settled in and mapping out our game plan, we headed in the direction of the Grand Place where we hoped to find a nice restaurant. Finding a restaurant was not a problem; the problem ended up being fighting off the restaurateurs who were trying to corral us into their establishments. It was a little overwhelming. We made our way down a narrow pedestrian street completely lined with restaurants that all appeared to have the exact same types of food and each had a doorman trying to give us a reason why we should choose their restaurant. It was very stressful!

I’ve always heard that Brussels is known for mussels and clams, so I was partial to giving that a try. We all agreed and tried to narrow it down since all of the restaurants offered mussels as well as all sorts of assorted fish and even paella. Each place even had posters showing appetizing pictures of their offerings. We settled on one of the many that offered us a free drink with our dinner and began deciphering the menus which were listed in at least four languages.

The prices on some of the items were very high, and trying to be economical, we decided to split a couple of appetizers and entrees. The waiter was very insistent that we would not be ordering enough food for all four of us and was trying to haggle with us and suggest ways that would give us enough food. Between his trying to get us to buy more food and our trying to sample things without spending too much money, things got very aggravating. Eventually we chose to order a fish and mussel platter, a paella platter and a frog legs appetizer. We should have suspected something when the waiter quickly made a suggestion when we were having trouble deciding on a second appetizer.

The food arrived and it was plenty for all of us to eat and I must say that everything was very delicious. I felt like we really got the full Brussels seafood experience. Plus we all sampled a couple of very good Belgian beers. However we got a bit of a surprise when the bill came. First of all, the waiter had automatically given us the “royale” version of the fish and mussel platter that added on at least twenty euros for half a lobster on the platter. Second of all, the appetizer that the waiter suggested cost a whopping 38 euros! So instead of spending 50 euros per couple we ended up spending about 85! Needless to say, there was a little resentment among the table, but I could not help but blame ourselves to some degree because we okayed the appetizer without asking the price. Granted, the waiter was very sneaky about it, but it is no different from up-sale techniques that every waiter learns in the States. Garrett was especially mad about the dinner but we pressed on and decided not to let it ruin the rest of the evening. We chalked it up to a valuable travel lesson: always ask the price of something the waiter suggests!

A very suggestive looking frog legs appetizer.

The four most expensive shrimp in Brussels!

Mussels from Brussels and other assorted fruits of the sea.

Beautiful Paella

From the restaurant, we headed for Le Cirio, a very old bar near the Grand Place. We had to stop at the Grand Place to admire the beauty and intricacies of the buildings lining the square. It was a sight to see at night and unfortunately, my camera is incapable of taking low-light photos that would do it justice. We vowed to return in the daylight to get better pictures knowing that it would still look spectacular, albeit very different, by the light of the sun. After our brief stop in the Grand Place, we arrived at Le Cirio and each ordered their signature drink, the Half & Half, half champagne and half white wine. They were crisp, refreshing, just the right balance of sweet and dry and very potent!

After a another Half & Half for me and a round of Framboise (Belgian raspberry lambic beer) for everyone else, we asked the waiter what else we should see on our one night in Brussels. He suggested the Manneken Pis only a few blocks away. We followed the signs as best we could after several strong drinks and eventually found our way to the "little pee man."

We were getting tired but not quite ready to turn in yet. Plus I was eager to try a high alcohol content Belgian beer before we left. The bar across the street from the Manneken Pis advertised just that, so we went in and began perusing the massive beer menu. Roxi and I chose Trappist beers, mine being 11.3 % alcohol by volume while Roxi's was 10%. Nicole chose to stick with Framboise and Garrett sat out for the round. Needless to say, Roxi and I were feeling no pain!

We'd definitely had enough after that round of drinks and so we made the walk back to the hotel and called it a night.

On Thursday morning, Garrett, Nicole and I headed back to the Grand Place to take some pictures and buy some Belgian waffles and chocolate while Roxi slept in. On the way there, I snapped a picture of the church just down the street from our hotel.

St. Jean Baptiste Church

As expected, the Grand Place looked magnificent and different in the daylight, but even still my pictures do not do it justice.

Next we found a nice little cafe on the square where Garrett and Nicole could get some Belgian waffles. I already had breakfast at the hotel so I didn't order one, but the bite that I tried was divine. If it weren't for all the walking, Europeans would have serious weight problems with all the rich food they eat. Speaking of rich food, after the waffles, we made a stop at a Belgian chocolate shop on the way back to the hotel. There were so many choices it was honestly overwhelming. We chose a couple of small bags of assorted chocolates and headed to the hotel to pack up our things for the next leg of our trip.

Upon check out from the hotel, we were informed that although we had pre-paid for our room on Expedia, we owed 52 euros for breakfast (almost half as much as the total cost of our room!). The breakfast offered by the hotel was continental style and consisted of a couple of juices, breads and cereals hardley worth 13 euros per person. On top of that Garrett and Nicole had barely eaten anything to save room for the waffles they'd had earlier. Being used to free continental breakfasts in American hotels, we just assumed the same applied for European hotels. So we learned the second valuable lesson in as many days. Is it a coincidence that we learned both of these lessons in Belgium? I think not!

At least I saw something that put a smile on my face on our walk to the Metro station:

"A beautiful day for mussels."

We took the short Metro ride to the train station and bought high-speed train tickets to Paris. Unlike our train from Amsterdam to Brussels, we had assigned seats on the next train and only about twenty minutes to catch it, so we wasted no time in finding the platform. A few minutes later, we boarded the very nice train car and prepared for the quick trip to Paris.

No comments: