Like most places in Belgium, Brussels has multiple spellings/names thanks to the multilingual state of the country. Brussels is how English speakers spell it. In French, it’s Bruxelles; and in Flemish it’s Brussel. Brussels is located virtually in the center of Belgium. It’s the capital city of Belgium as well as the de facto capital for the European Union, hosting many of its key organizations, including the Parliament. This makes the city a highly busy and cosmopolitan place. Officially, it’s a bilingual city, although French is more dominant despite its origins as a Flemish speaking city.
My day had begun bright and early as I had to travel from Antwerp to Tournai for my meeting with Marc-Antoine De Mees at Brasserie de Brunehaut. It was still early in my journey through Belgium and my first day traveling solo. I had missed one train in the Brussels station on the transfer from Antwerp to Tournai; the Brussels-Midi station is quite big. Give yourself a bit of extra time if it’s your first experience using this station.
I had hoped to get into Brussels earlier, but had such a nice time at Brunehaut with Marc-Antoine that I didn’t exactly rush to the train station. I arrived in Brussels a little after 4pm (1600 hours). There was no way I’d have time to get through Cantillon in that short of a time so I just snagged a cab and had him take me to the Grand Place. The Grand Place is probably the number 1 tourist destination because of the amazing buildings, many of which date from as early as the 14th Century.
The earliest reference to settlements in the area that’s now Brussels was the building of a chapel on an island in the Senne River around 580 CE. Over time, people settled around the chapel until it grew into a village which really took off due to its prime location on the river trade route between Bruges, Ghent, and Cologne. Walls were added in the 13th Century as the city continued to grow. At this point, Brussels was part of the territory of the Counts of Leuven who became the Dukes of Brabant. They eventually joined the Hapsburg Empire through marriage when Charles V became emperor. It stayed a part of the Austrian Empire until 1795 when Napoleon came through. It remained a part of France until 1815 at which point it was given to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands after Napoleon’s defeat. 15 year later, the Belgian Revolution took place creating a new country in 1830 with Brussels as the capital.
The Grand Place
The Grand Place (Grote Markt in Flemish) is the central market square of Brussels and the place tourists probably make their first destination. The buildings are old, ornate, and interesting. You’ll have to dodge lots of tourists taking pictures, but then again, you’re one of them. Take your time and look over the buildings thoroughly. There’s lots of little points of interest on each one that can be overlooked if you’re in a hurry. Each section and building has its own personality and unique presentation.
One of the great things about the Grand Place, besides the amazing buildings, is the the small alleys and roadways leading off into various directions, leading to new adventures. Although in my case, mine were a bit truncated due to my limited time. I had a few places on my list, but my first stop wasn’t one of them. My eyes were drawn by a beer sign down an alley, and like a cat going after a laser pointer, I investigated.
Au Bon Vieux Temps could be classified as what the Dutch and Belgians call a “Brown Bar.” Brown bars refer to a friendly place to get a drink that feature dark wood and a convivial pub like atmosphere. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was one of the few people there so I picked a seat at the bar. Apparently, the place as been around for around 300 years. It’s like walking in the door takes you to a portal through time. Unfortunately, the prices are very modern as it’s become a tourist stop. I paid €12 for a bottle of Westvleteren 12, but hey, it seemed like the thing to do at the time.
There’s a certain joy to hanging out at a bar by yourself. It allows me to be a slightly unobtrusive fly on the wall. I spent some time eavesdropping on a group of American tourists from the midwest. They were part of some tour group and were quite obviously tourists and Americans. I hope I was more subtle, save for the backpack I was sporting. But with limited time and limited interest in the background conversation, I headed back to the Grand Place.
Along the way, I stumbled on a bottle shop. I knew I’d be paying very touristy prices, but with an agenda that probably wasn’t going to let me get every single thing I might want, I ventured in and paid the prices. The selection was quite good though. I loaded my bag with my prizes and headed back out to find my next stop. This may not have been the best decision, that much beer in thick glass weighs a lot.
A La Mort Subite
I had a specific destination but no wi-fi to pull a map up on my phone. After walking around for a few minutes, I just walked up and asked a hotel doorman. He handed me one of their courtesy maps and showed me where to go. A La Mort Subite is a classic Brussels destination famous for its house brewed Lambics and its gorgeous interior.
Named after a dice game that bank employees would play on break while at the bar, “Mort Subite” was the last hurried game before they had to dash back to work. When the Vossen family, still the owners, moved the bar to its current location in 1928, they decided to name it after that last game and “Mort Subite” was born. The beer list is pretty good and features many Lambic concoctions with their house brewed beer. Most of them are on the sweeter side, but not sickly so. They’re tasty and refreshing and worth the stop. They also have a nice assortment of snacks.
This would fall in the lines of a classic establishment. The decor is all about white walls; gold, ornate trim; mirrors; and “class.” The waiters are all in white button-down shirts, black vests and bow ties. The service is also very good.
A La Becasse
My next destination was to be Chez Moeder Lambic. Once again, I got lost. So, I tried the friendly doorman again. No luck this time. He didn’t know where it was or was tired of tourists for the day, especially one who wasn’t staying in his hotel. So I decided to hit my fall back plan and headed to A La Becasse.
A La Becasse has been in existance since 1877 and can be found down a set of stairs not far from the Grand Place. Like Mort Subite, A La Becasse serves house made Lambics and Lambic blends brewed by Timmermans. Timmermans has recently ventured back into the realm of traditional Geuze and Kriek with an Oude Gueuze and Oude Kriek. Although I haven’t tried the Kriek yet, the Gueuze is quite good. The beer list at A La Becasse is small, but solid with some nice Lambics besides Timmermans to choose from.
The communal tables are situated in a basement room just off the Grande Place. The atmosphere is charming and well lit. The tap tower is also quite unique, which is a fairly common trait in Belgian bars. The house Lambics are served in these great stoneware jugs with the house Lark on the front. It’s certainly worth a stop. The beers are fun as is the location itself.
Time was drawing to an end if I wanted to catch my train back to Antwerp. I flagged a cab back to Brussels-Midi and caught my train. There’s something satisfying about the last leg of full day’s adventures. I’d made it all the way across Belgium and back, visited some great people and places, and had a thoroughly wonderful day. Some how when “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsytem popped up on my iPhone, it seemed like the perfect soundtrack for my ride through the Belgian night.