Disclosure: On Saturday, Shimrit and I were part of a small group of bloggers invited by Eurostar and their ‘conversation agency’ WeAreSocial on an expenses paid ‘Little Break‘ day out to Brussels. This is not an ad for Eurostar, but when reading it you should keep in mind that our morals and ethics have been completely compromised.
And that we’d really like to go to Paris next time, please. Or Amsterdam.
It’s 17:50 and 14 exhausted bloggers and 4 nervous PR people are sprinting through Brussels resigned to the fact that we’ve missed our 17:59 Eurostar home. We’ve somehow managed to break the last functioning metro tram in the city in our rush to get home and everything looks like it’s falling apart.
By some miracle we make it to passport control with 3 minutes to spare. What’s more, the Belgian border control officials seem to think a “blogger” is English for “royalty” and we’re ushered through in record time. We’re all on board and a rather enjoyable day out is coming to an end.
The day started at a much slower pace with a meeting at a very cold St Pancras International at 6am. 6am! Luckily, most of us were still asleep and didn’t really feel the cold, but it’s perhaps not the ideal way to start a Saturday morning in November.
We boarded our (comfy, warm) 6:59 train and in no time at all we were in Brussels. The actual journey time was 2 hours, but with good company and a nice breakfast, it didn’t feel that long at all.
We started our day with a trip to Planète Chocolat, a large chocolate shop in the centre of town, and what can only be described as a lecture on why Belgian chocolate is so awesome. Melanie, our host and lecturer seemed very nice, but was clearly not impressed with our lack of knowledge of Belgian history – or Belgian chocolates.
One particular sticking point was the definition of the word ‘praline’. Belgian chocolatiers use the word to describe any filled chocolate, whereas most of the rest of the world use it to describe a confection made from nuts and sugar.
But nobody argued with Melanie. Melanie had chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
We were showed how pralines, ‘cat tongue’ shaped bars and Easter eggs (or ‘eastern eggs’ in Melanie’s charming English) are made, and then tied to our chairs and forced to watch a video presentation. Thankfully, it was a short video on how chocolate is produced from bean to bar. It wasn’t particularly entertaining, but was well made and described the process well.
For something that resembled going back to school, it was an enjoyable experience. I did find being repeatedly told that it was a simple matter of fact that Belgian chocolate is ‘the best in the world’ became slightly irritating and perhaps a little condescending, but the people at Planète Chocolat are clearly passionate about what they do, so I put it down to them simply taking pride in their work. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
After the demonstrations, we were handed small goody bags and ushered through the main part of the shop where we most of us bought a couple more small items. I bought three 100g blocks of chocolate (lavender, violet and cinnamon) for €5 each which I’ll be reviewing separately. I haven’t tasted them yet, but my general impression was that most of the chocolate was a little pricey. I’ll save my final judgement for the reviews though.
Lunch was at Belga Queen, a rather beautiful restaurant that was previously a bank. It’s a single, spacious room with high arched ceilings and comfy chairs. It’s also probably the only place in the world you’ll find a life-sized sliver horse inscribed with the names of famous Belgians. I stopped reading when I got to Jean Claude Van Damme.
The meal itself was good, but not great. We were given the set menu for groups, and I had meatballs and fries. Better than the very similar offering you’ll find in IKEA restaurants – but only marginally so. The three chocolate mousse for dessert, however, was rather yummy.
After lunch, we had a stroll around the Christmas market. That in itself was easier said than done, because the entire market was in completely the wrong place. After much head scratching, turning the map upside down, and finally resorting to actually asking someone, we found it – 10 minutes walk from where it was meant to be.
The process of finding it was as interesting as the market itself. Lots of lovely old cobbled streets filled with chocolate shops and bars. It’s safe to say that if you don’t like chocolate and alcohol, then Brussels is not for you.
The market was slightly disappointing and a little touristy. Rows of sheds selling sweets and alcohol of all kinds, but not much else. But when you’re wondering round with a cup of hot mulled wine in your hand, you don’t really mind anyway.
At the end of the day, we all made our way back to the designated meeting place and casually hopped on to the metro back to Brussels Midi station. At least that’s what was meant to happen. Some of our party got lost/sidetracked and by the time we all caught up with each other, things were a little… frantic. But I can laugh about it now.
All in all, I loved my day out in Brussels. There isn’t a huge amount to do there, but that’s the beauty of just staying a single day. The fact that you can just hop on a train and have lunch on the continent is incredibly appealing to me, and so much less hassle than flying. But if you’re planning on doing it yourself, here’s my top tips.
- Do a little bit of planning and take a map!
- Leave yourself plenty of time, and plan for things taking twice as long as you think they should – particularly if you’re traveling in a group.
- Avoid catching the first train out and the last train back.
- Wear flat shoes. The streets of Brussels are cobbled!
- Take plenty of spending money… and bring me back some chocolate.