Monday the 20th
Living overseas, away from the delicacies which characterise the flavour of a nation, accounts for a substantial sentimental absence that can only be reconciled with food on the occasions we return to Europe. Just think: all the chocolate, pancakes, waffles, croquettes, bitterballen, speculoos, hagelslag, cheese, flemish coffee, fresh mint tea, genever, beer… When reunited with these tantalising treats it is difficult to practice self-restraint! It is almost tempting to tick every item off the list before breakfast on day one – after all, they were all available in the square outside our hotel. Rather than choose from the above, we ordered a pistolet. Available at a humble shop named after its main menu item, mum and I settled inside with a creation of our own making. A pistolet is a freshly baked sourdough roll with a crunchy shell that has been sliced through its centre and filled with the diner’s choice of cheeses, charcuterie, spreads, salads and condiments. My pistolet was spread with kipcurry, a traditionally Belgian cold green chicken curry, with lettuce, carrots and cucumber. It may sound like a simple meal, but do not underestimate its flavour, which, combined with my reminiscent association of a pistolet with weekend family breakfasts, made for a happy start to the day.
We did our best to refrain from further indulgence this morning but the allure of handmade pralines proved to be too tempting to resist. We returned to La Belgique Gourmande for our second time in not yet 24 hours. La Belgique Gourmande was lined with chocolate from floor to ceiling. Pans filled to the brim with sweets were arranged atop wooden cabinets, each with a silver serving spoon so large it was guaranteed you would take more than you should eat in one sitting (if you can stop once you’ve started). There were toasted almonds of various flavour concoctions such as mascarpone, tiramisu and speculoos. There were round pralines with liquid centres of champagne, baileys, irish liquor or other standard fruity flavours. There were handmade rochers, there were seashells, there were marzipan stones, marshmallow squares, chocolate coated orange rinds, and medallions. This time with the intention of purchasing chocolates to last the remainder of the trip, we filled up a small bag with a large amount of sweets. This unique boutique could be found in multiple locations in Central Brussels and was not limited to the retail of cocoa products. A store on a side-street verging from the Grand Place sold its renowned selection of chocolates as well as a variety of Belgian beers. In a sense, this arrangement reminds me of my parent’s marriage: my mum being the chocolate and my dad the beer (both individuals are implicitly indulgent in their respective symbolic representations) are a pairing of two dissimilar flavours that are nonetheless complementary. We went to seek a coffee for with our chocolate.
Before we stepped onto the Grand Place, we were pulled into another quaint boutique, this time specialising in nougat. Although I am not one to jump at this sweet as I most definitely would at chocolate, I could not bypass the speculoos nougat that caught my attention in the shop window. We have not yet spent two days in Belgium, but I have noticed the increase in speculoos flavoured foods since my last visit. Speculoos is a cinnamon spice biscuit traditionally eaten during Christmas. It is often served in small portions with coffee and is printed with decorative images of windmills or farmers. A few years ago, we first discovered the spreadable version of this biscuit as a smooth or crunchy paste. Last year I first tasted it as an ice cream and even had it as a creative coffee called the speculatte! Now, I have already seen it in pralines, magnums and even AS A LIQUER! What a time to be alive! I am going to struggle to fit all this deliciousness in my suitcase on the flight home.
We arrived on the Grand Place, a beautiful cobblestone square with gold-embellished architecture along its perimeter. Every street revealed a new wonder! At the time of its construction, some four centuries ago, it functioned as an economic and political centre and today it maintains a similar purpose as the business capital of Europe. The standout feature on the square is the Maison du Roi, or Kings House, which stands in contrast to its brightly coloured surroundings due to the medieval architectural influences on this building. The dark colour of the oxidised brick cast an eerie impression, and the green copper statues atop the ornately woven bannisters on the slanted roof were the only relief from this colour scheme. It stood opposite Hôtel de Ville, the Town Hall with which the inception of this world city began. Each window was visible beneath an archway that featured a figure draped in robes, often positioned in a Christian or Romantic pose. The bell tower erupted in three tiers above the roof of the town hall. The rich architecture of gold adornments and intricate detailing had earned Brussels Grand Place validity as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We took rest at La Brouette, a tavern on the market square in full view of the scenes of the city.
Here, we planned out the remaining activities for the afternoon, the first on the list being a typical tourist stop to Manneke Pis. I had realistic expectations of the iconic statue, but I can imagine that the small attraction might catch the unknowing tourist off guard were they expecting something extraordinary. A fountainhead, almost too large for the thee-foot figure, stood backed against a wall encircled by an iron gate. Were it not for the security cameras, the fencing and the immense crowd, I believe I might have walked past Manneke Pis. Finally, we went onwards to Brussels Central Station, which had quickly returned to its norm since the alert 24 hours prior.
After a short struggle with the ticketing machine, we were allowed onto the metro platform. This was no easy task, however, as the unfamiliar systems posed something of a challenge. Approaching the barrier, I could not find a slot in which to insert or swipe my ticket. A fellow commuter came to my aid as she herself passed through the barrier, tapping on a red section of the blockade as to indicate where to scan my ticket. This goes to show how we take for granted the normalised transport systems that are means to our daily functioning. Whilst it may seem logical to tap an opal card on a colourful button, these habits are taught and would pose a problem to those unaware of such processes. A similar example is the stated struggle mum and I experienced with the ticket dispenser. With the choice to purchase one trip tickets (there was no option to buy return tickets as we would in Australia) we made two separate transactions for two by two journey tickets, unaware that they would print out as single slips. After all, how were we to know? The station itself was disgusting. We arrived when the cleaning crew was in operation, yet they were moving across the platform faster than they could eradicate the smell of urine. Luckily mum and I did not have too much time to dwell on the ambient hygiene as we were soon boarding the train behind a commuter who pushed the button to make the doors open (do we ever learn?).
Through a window stippled with water droplets we viewed mini-Europe, the Trade Mart, the Planetarium, a water park and various other attractions that comprised the village of exhibitions. We were on level seven of the Automium which we had reached in an elevator that travelled at 5 meters per second, the fastest at its time of construction in 1958. Shortly after, mum said she was feeling dizzy from the steep ascent to 100 meters above ground. In the distance we could see the National Basiliek van het Heilig Hart in Koekelberg (National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg). It was a beautifully impressive sight! I revelled at the quaint houses which formed maze-like passages. They were stacked against one another, often sharing a communal wall and thereby forming geometric shapes that neatly slotted together like a mosaic. The Automium is a weird concept but the view of Brussels from above makes a lot of sense. Despite the unfortunate weather, the rich green parks which contrast the characteristic architecture made for a happy sight. Whilst it may not be viewed as the most serene landscape, it evokes in me feelings of wander and homeliness. I am a beach girl. I love the sun and the sea. But this environment brings out something else in me which I cannot find in Australia. To this landscape I associate so many personal themes, such as family or even destiny, that I do not have the good fortune to experience daily. I am often curious as to whether I would express these passions if I had grown up where I was born. Being here rekindles a connectivity that I don’t imagine many others experience of the foreign countries they visit. Interrupting my train of thought, mum gave me a souvenir of the “Belgian Heritage Collection” printed with the Atomium on it.
I am impressed with the lingual fluidity of the locals in Brussels. As soon as mum and I went to order a drink atop this Atomium, the waiter flipped from English to Dutch to explain the options. We had a Belgian Mojito on the top floor of the Atomium, containing Elixir d’Anvers, lime, orange and mint. Finally we were ready to begin the tour! The Atomium was built as the main attraction for the World Fair when it was held in Brussels in 1958. It was inspired by the American Program “Atoms for Peace”, as atomic war was a major global issue in this context. Hence materialised the structure, an atom amplified 165 billion times. It was designed by Waterkeyn and received its unique name through a combination of the design elements: atoms and aluminium from which it was constructed. Coupled with this longstanding atomic icon of Brussels was the reputation of the independent woman. Hostesses clad in red jackets were employed to guide visitors throughout the convention, therefore the 1950s image of the strong female coincides with the era of post-WWII focused on economic prosperity and international cooperation. The next level of the exhibition was dedicated to light projections and music that revolutionised the 1950s. Designed by the Visual System, it was inspired by the so-called city of tomorrow and features flashing displays. Level 5 showed the construction of the Automium and featured a presentation on the value of TALK. The ability of speech to unite and divide was the focus of this presentation and the constructive nature of this concept was explored though films and word diagrams. We were subjected to increasingly dreary weather when we made our way back to the hotel from the exhibition.
I have noticed that the majority of cafes in Belgium offer the wifi password with purchase. It is either printed on their menus or hanging on the wall as a placard. I imagine that when I move to Belgium to study for a short time I won’t even have to purchase an international sim card. I can just spend most of my spare time exploring the backstreets of Belgium and testing the various cafes and wifis in order to contact family and complete my university assignments. Even if this is inefficient, I am sure the university will have wifi so whatever the time or the situation I will be set! We are sitting in a cafe on the corner of a side street from Brussels Grand Place. It is called The Sister and specialises in organic or alternative alcoholic beverages. I ordered a Leireken fruit beer. As renowned as Belgium is for its chocolate, its beers deserve an equal reputation. With hundreds of local fresh produce and distilleries at its disposal, the beer that originates in Belgium is valued all over the world. Whilst I am no connoisseur for beer (quite the opposite), I don’t mind this very dry but sweet concoction of pomegranate, elderberry, bilberry, cherry and strawberry with raspberry pulp. I will add there is no chance I can finish this. The couple opposite mum and I are having a triage of beers set up like test tubes in a rack filled with three variations for tasting. An awesome idea – if only I liked beer that much. Another feature renowned of Brussels is the Jazz Bar. Scattered all around the city, this setting makes for a cozy and entertaining evening any day of the week. Although I will admit I have been lucky in my planning to have some time in Brussels, two days is not enough!
We returned to the restaurant from earlier today for dinner. La Brouette had an ambience unmatched by any eatery we had yet discovered, with a fireplace that warmed the entire venue. The two-levelled brasserie was split with a wooden ceiling that was coated with textured plaster to match the beige walls. Features of framed cartoons and photos attached to placards decorated the restaurant. The art-nouveau style was visible in the architecture and artwork, from the skirting on the ceiling to the quirky framed pictures of bobblehead figures arranged for a group portrait. Mum recognised a clock hanging in the upper story of the restaurant as a replica of one her parents had in their home as she grew up. The peculiar white face with elongated roman numerals around its edge was positioned against a kitsch floral wallpaper and framed as though it were a picture. The back of the room was completed with an open bar lined with metal kegs and no less than three beer barrels protruding from the wall. We ate muscles cooked in white wine and garnaalkroketten. Whilst the food was average, the ambience kept us in the venue long after we had finished eating – and out of the rain outside.
We have arrived at next hotel! I can already see the next five weeks will be Hotel Hopping. Living out of a suitcase will be no problem for me although the struggle to close it will become only more testing. The Hilton Antwerp Old Town is quite familiar to me as it is here that I spent a substantial time of my stay last year. It is right on the Groenplaats (Green Place) giving it easy access to the Cathedral of Our Lady and to the main shopping streets, the Meir and the Keyserlei. There is almost a feeling of deja vu as I ascend to level four and wind my way through the indirect passages to our room. The view from our window is of a neat white building that resembles something of a city hall. Its official ardour is evident in the roman numerals inscribed in the ribbon above the door. and a gateway is used to separate the public from ornate sculptured figures which pose inside the stained windows. I later learned this building had been the residency of the pastor in this province. If it were not for the difference in view, I might suggest that I was staying in the same room as I did last year because I vaguely remember the framed painting above the bedside being of a map with sailing ships, just like this one. So far, I have to commend the comfort of the beds in the Hilton Hotels. I have not has so good a sleep in a long time.