By Jim Ferri
Taking the night train from Copenhagen, I had the entire couchette to myself, which was nothing short of wonderful.
I had been traveling about Scandinavia for two weeks and, facing an additional three in southern Europe, asked my wife join me in Brussels.
It turned out to be the perfect choice for a wonderful, fun, delicious weekend.
Place du Grand Sablon
My wife arrived Friday morning and after a half day’s rest we set out for Place du Grand Sablon. My taxi driver had pointed it out on my way to my hotel, assuring me it was a place we should see.
When we arrived, we found a small antique market in full swing, one of the better antique markets I’d seen anywhere in Europe. The market added to the ambiance of the beautiful little square that was ringed with cafés and restaurants, chocolatiers, and an occasional antique shop. We roamed about it for a while inhaling the atmosphere.
At one point, we passed an old Volkswagen van with “Warme Watels” painted on its side. It was a mobile Belgian waffle kitchen and walking by we got a delicious whiff of freshly cooked waffles. €2 each, the sign said, or €2.50with chocolate, €3 with crème fraiche. It set the tone for the weekend.
Chocolates, Chocolates, Chocolates
There were many more delicious aromas to come since we soon discovered that Place du Grand Sablon is also ground zero for luxury chocolatiers. There we found many of the top names: Pierre Marcolini, Godiva, Neuhaus, and Leonidas. Marcolini, in fact, had two shops, only a minute’s walk from one another.
We went into one, which was a showroom and not where they made the little cocoa jewels and were amazed at the variety we found. There were even boxes of chocolates with each piece labeled with the name of the bean’s country of origin.
There were also chocolate cakes, chocolate-walnut cakes, Napoleons, and everything else imaginable chocolate-wise. Off to the side was a little counter where customers could eat their newly purchased little treasures.
On the second floor was a section that invited you to “discover our chocolate bars in pre-packed bags or customize your own box.” There was chocolate all around of different colors and flavors with customers ordering different assortments in multiple boxes. It was nothing short of chocoholic heaven.
If you’re in Brussels stop off here; you’ll go home a few pounds heavier, but it will be worth it.
Breakfast, a Great Museum and Beautiful Park
We returned to Place du Grand Sablon the next morning to enjoy our first meal of the day at Le Pain Quotidien. We had seen the bakkerij-boulangerie the previous day, and we sat at one of the communal tables for a nice breakfast.
We then set off across the square, making a quick stop in Notre Dame du Sablon, a small church renowned for its beautiful stained glass windows. Once out of the church we crossed the adjacent Rue de la Régence, pausing for a few minutes to see the tiny but beautiful garden in the Place du Petit Sablon, before continuing up the street.
In just a block we began passing a trio of museums – the Musée Fin-de-Siècle, the Musée Modern and Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium – before we reached our target, the adjacent Magritte Museum on Place Royale, to view a collection of works by the Belgian artist.
After spending two hours viewing René Magritte’s surrealist masterpieces, we topped off our midday adventure by wandering along the wide chestnut-tree shaded pedestrian avenues of the beautiful Parc de Bruxelles, just across the street adjacent to the Royal Palace, for another half hour.
An Urban Picnic and Les Galeries Royales
We wanted to spend the afternoon visiting Brussels’ Grand Place, the famously huge old market square of the city. To reach it we backtracked to the Magritte and took a small stairway behind it down into another little park where we found hundreds of Belgians out on the sunny Sunday afternoon. At little tables under the trees, many were enjoying food and wine they had bought at several stands set up along the walkway.
We considered joining them but instead continued on our way to the Grand Place, making a detour to visit Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, an old arcaded shopping street just a few blocks beyond. It was a fantastic place, not only for the shops and restaurants but also for the ambiance that made you feel that you’d stepped back in time.
Galleries such as the Saint-Hubert were once popular in both Belgium and Paris (see The Hidden Passages of Paris) but I particularly enjoyed Saint-Hubert since it has bettered retained the atmosphere of past centuries. If you’re ever in Brussels or Paris, they’re well worth visiting.
The Grand Place
For many travelers, the Grand Place epitomizes Brussels. In fact, its name alone hints at what it holds: the most incredible assemblage of 17th-century Flemish Baroque buildings in the world. It is one of the top sights to visit in all of Europe if only to see the magnificent Hôtel de Ville, the most magnificent civic building in all of Belgium.
The streets in the area leading to the Grand Place were crowded, with a gaggle of small flea markets contributing to the throng. When we arrived at Grand Place, we found it also quite crowded, with a festival underway.
The crowd, fueled by samplings of different foods, wines, and beers over the previous few hours, was having a fun, but not raucous time. A small brass band played as a quartet of giant paper-mache figures danced across the square. In cafés on its periphery, people were whiling away the afternoon over beers and wine.
Eat Mussels In Brussels
We had been looking forward to dining in Brussels, a city famous for its cuisine and restaurants. While we dined in several restaurants over the long weekend, our surprise favorite turned out to be Chez Leon, on Rue des Bouchers (Street of the Butchers), a street devoted mainly to tourist restaurants.
Chez Leon remains one of the most famous restaurants in Brussels mainly for its moules (mussels), the national dish. As incredible as it may seem, this one restaurant serves half a ton of mussels every day.
I normally don’t eat mussels – I ordered rabbit that evening – but the mussels my wife ordered were exceptional (even I liked them). I’m certain that accounted for the long line of people continually coming into the restaurant all night long.
Sitting there with a glass of wine after finishing dinner, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them had been sampling chocolates on Place du Grand Sablon earlier in the day.
It was then I realized the effect Brussels has on visitors: you not only remember memorable sights but also memorable meals.
And, of course, memorable chocolates.
If you go:
Belgian Tourist Office
300 East 42nd Street, 14th floor
New York, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 758-8130
Tourist Office for Flanders – Brussels
620 Eighth Ave – 44th Floor
New York, NY 10018
Tel: (212) 584-2336
Rue des Bouchers 18