Day One – 6th August 2017
Our first train journey on this trip was from Amsterdam to Brussels. After checking out from Flying Pig hostel we walked to the central station. It was too early to have the free hostel breakfast so decided to get something from the station before boarding the train. We had to visit the ticket counter to validate our EU Rail Pass and get info on train timings. The train that we were thinking of catching was cancelled due to construction works but there was another one leaving in 30mins or so. We decided to catch that one. We bought a bagauette sandwich each as breakfast to eat on the train. We sat in the second class coach with a first class ticket as we weren’t sure which one is which. When the ticket checker came, he told us that the coaches with a yellow band is the first class. Point noted. We had coffee and “Girnar” Indian tea (we of course were carrying ready tea mixture) on the train.
It was unreal crossing an international border by train…a first time for me! It was short 3 hour ride via Antwerp.
We finally reached our destination…Destination Brussels!
We reached Midi station in Brussels around 11:30am. We walked from the station to the hostel Brxxl 5. It was a 20 min walk. The first impressions for Brussels – Mumbai look alike. The area from the station to hostel gave us a vibe of Mumbai. We arrived at the hostel and the person at the reception took a while to find our reservation. After an effort, he managed to find our reservations and informed us that the rooms will be ready soon. Since we started early in the morning (we woke up at 4am) we wanted to have a shower before we went out site seeing. While waiting, we explored the options of a free walking tour. After an excellent experience in Dublin, we thought it is a good way to get introduced to the city with a walking tour. There was one which started at 1pm and another one at 3pm. We both were hungry and wanted a shower so we zeroed in on the 3pm tour.
We waited for around 30mins and the designated room (on 2nd floor) still wasn’t ready. So we inquired at the reception and they allocated us another room which was ready. It was on the 3rd floor and the lift wasn’t working. So picked our bags and got to our 4 bunk bedder room with a balcony and ensuite. It was fresh modern room. Before a shower we decided to go and have something to eat. Locked our bags in the luggage cage and went out. Explored the options around the hostel and found a kebab place. I ordered a falafel and Jay got a kebab. We got in a meal for €5 each. That was lunch sorted for €10. 🙂
We came back and had a shower and changed before going for our walking tour. We got introduced to the other 2 residents of our room – 2 Taiwanese girls. They came from Amsterdam too. We chatted for a while and told them about the cheap kebab corner and the free walking tour. The tour was going to start from the Grand Platz. It was a 12-15min walk from our hostel. The area around the hostel gave us an impression of a not so pleasant neighbourhood. It was nice and close to the city centre but just a bad patch. We wouldn’t recommend the hostel for any single female travellers.
Anyway, on our way to the Grand Platz, we walked past an area which was officially Gay dominated. Even the road crossing was in rainbow colours. Interesting.
We walked from a narrow street to arrive at Grand Platz….and my oh my! What grandness and beauty! We were awestruck! Now we are in Brussels! We were surrounded by so much beauty and grandeur that it took us a few minutes to take it all in. The buildings housed different trades in the past times. The guild for fishing, beer etc etc. All building except the church had statues atop and heavy gold accents. We clicked a few photos and then moved on to find our tour guide. We found the orange umbrella and registered ourselves. Explored the square and FaceTime home while waiting for the tour to start.
We then started with our tour which took us to important spots around the city. He (Walid) briefly told us about the invention of chocolate, manekin pis, waffles, Frits (fries), St Nikolai church (Santa Claus), pilgrims stopover at the church on the way to Spain, following the shells to the pilgrimage, museum of music, uptown, world’s biggest outdoor pool and skating park etc. Guess what…our room partners took our word and joined us for the tour too.
At the end of the tour, we tipped the guide (€10). As we had decide at the start of the tour, we would try and follow the same route to click photos and stuff. While on the tour, we just wanted to take in as much as possible and not get left behind clicking photos. We started with Manekin pis…to say the least the whole hubbalah around the attraction is a huge over statement. Anyways, like a sincere tourist, we did the photo regime and went to the waffle place near manekin piss. They advertise waffles for €1, but those ones are not the authentic Belgian waffles. In our research we had seen the difference and so went into the shop to order the ‘white’ waffle which is much more lighter and made with a milk like thing instead of the dough. Jay ordered a powder sugar one (plain) and I got the one with strawberries and cream. We sat on stairs opposite the pissing boy and savoured our waffles. Next stop was the frit place. When the guide showed us the place it had a long queue and that was the case when we visited again. The history of Belgian fries is that the locals used to eat fried fish as a staple and one winter when the lake froze, they didn’t have any fish. Thus, someone decided to cut the potatoes (a novice which had just arrived from west) into fish shape and fry it just like the fish. They tried it and loved it, thus the invention of fries. During the world war when the American soldiers were stationed in Belgium, they tried the fried potatoes and loved them. Since the people of that area used to speak French, and the soldiers didn’t know the name of the dish, they called them French fries (the fries that the French speaking people of Belgium are). This way the name was derived. Mind you, the Belgians take offence if you tell them otherwise.
Officially, Belgium is a bilingual country. They speak French and Flemish. Due to this reason, all the road signs have 3 names, French, Flemish and English. I stood in the long queue and we finally got our fries with mayo. They were good but not the best fries I had! Just a tip to research the place before you visit as few places sell frozen fries to meek tourists looking for a cultural experience.
After the 3.5 hours of walking tour and the early start, we were ready to hit bed. We walked back to our hostel and called it a day.
Day Two – 7th August 2017
We woke up nice and fresh. The two girls came in late last night and after a brief chat went straight to bed without changing or anything. Then at 3 in the morning they woke up and went for a shower, had face mask on and had their stuff all over the room. I was too sleepy to care. Breakfast wasn’t included at our hostel but was available to buy for €5 each. We bought the voucher from the hostel reception and went round the corner to the breakfast place. The breakfast spread was okay and could have been a bit better but the ready availability was a bonus. We carry a refillable steel bottle so that we don’t spend hundreds on mineral water. So far we learnt that all tap water was drinkable and most city centres have fountains.
Anyways, after breakfast we headed to atomium and if the time permitted to mini Europe. It was going to be a hot sunny day so made sure we had our sunscreens on. At the time of preparing the itenarary, we had decided that we will try and travel to as much places on our own, amongst locals, like locals and try to experience the everyday life of the people living in the city.
We went to Midi station as we wanted to catch a metro. We went o the information desk and got details on which lines etc. We bought our tickets and set on the 20-30mins journey to atomium. We reached there and the entrance was just outside the station. We sat there for a while and called everyone at home. We then headed to the atomium. It was a fantastic experience seeing it in person. It is a very unique experience. Some points about the building:
- It was originally built as part of a science exhibit. Due to the uniqueness, the building was never dismantled and remained as a permanent structure.
- The building is built to scale to an actual Atom particle.
- One can actually go inside the building to the top.
- There are elevators which can take you to the top of the building.
- There are windows from where you can view the city of Brussels.
After admiring the building we decided to take a tea break. We went to the nearest cafe and grabbed a coffee while we sort the building. There was a huge queue of people who wanted to go out of the building. The heat deterred us from standing in the queue.
As a tip if you are planning to go to the Atomium you can pre-book the tickets online and save yourself the hassle. After taking millions of photos from all angles we were ready to move to our next spot – mini Europe.
We went to the information desk to get directions to mini Europe. They found that they were not not many signs which directed us in the correct direction. With the help of a good old Google we did manage to reach mini Europe. We went to the ticket office to get our tickets. We noticed that it was possible to get a combo ticket for the Atomium and mini Europe. So as an additional tip you can get a combo ticket from here and not stand in the queue at Atomium.
Mini Europe too was a great experience. All the miniature buildings were made so meticulously and the attention to detail was great. We got the info book from the entry point which outlined the importance and purposes of the buildings displayed. We decide to take photos of the places we weren’t going to visit. The place was bigger and wide spread than what we expected. The mojo at the start was high but then it was more about enjoying looking at the displays than to read the history of each and we had sight or even to click the photos. The Atomium was still in the back ground which allowed us to get some great 2in1 clicks. The day was quite hot and all that walking in the sun did make us go a couple of shades darker.
By the time we finished Mini Europe, we were bit exhausted and super hungry. The options outside the canteen were limited which meant only one or may be no options for the vego me. 😦
So we ultimately decided to go back the city and get lunch there. It was a long ride! We reached Midi station and there were heaps of options there. It was nearly 4pm and we were scavenging to get the best option. I opted for a wok place and have some vege noodles. Jay got a baguette and a drink. We found a table and ate. Midi station is a shady place. May be may be not – as they say it’s all in the perception. However, every time we were here, we were extra vigilant of our surroundings.
We finished our lunch and decided on what we wanted to do next. After yesterday’s mesmerising experience of seeing the Grand Square, I realised that I was so awestruck by the architecture that I hadn’t actually walked up to the buildings and touched them. I wanted to do that and conveyed this to Jay. He said let’s do it and straights from the station, we went to the square. We walked up the buildings and felt it! It was an important moment in realising that this is real and we are actually here living this moment. We then just wanted to sit in the presence of this grand architecture and were also too tired to do anything else. We grabbed the front seat of the great view and vibe at Starbucks. Got a chilled frappe and idled away the next one hour or so. We also did some of the mandatory tourist activity of people watching.
Did you notice?? I haven’t mentioned the most famously associated word yet, ‘Belgian Chocolates’. It is because we had almost a full day allocated to it. Jay had booked in a extensive tour of chocolate tasting and making for yours truly. To get a head start on the upcoming chocolate tour, we researched the best chocolate shops and decided to buy some. We went chocolate shopping in the nearby plaza which is lined with gourmet chocolatiers on both sides – Heaven!! 😍 we went to Neuhaus. It is said that Praline chocolates were first made here. It was initially a pharmacy. Once the pharmacist was joined by his grandchild and innocently suggested coating the bitter meds with chocolate to disguise the taste. He took his advice on board and the concept gained popularity. He then decided to sell chocolates only and came up with the concept of praline. Praline is basically crunchy caramel which is then filled with chocolate. The lady at Neuhaus was saw our enthusiasm and offered us free tastings and showed us the most popular range. I bought eight pieces of chocolate with 4 of them dark and 4 others in different flavours. The dark chocolate pralines were so good that it is impossible to describe them. I bet once someone tastes hear, the store bought dairy milks will never make it to your shopping basket.
After satisfying my taste buds it was time to tick off a bucket list item on Jay’s list – Dellirium. It is the largest pin in Brussels and it sells over 2000 varieties of beer with numerous on tap. To prove its presence it has been awarded a Guiness World Record Certificate too. Jay had a beer and we enjoyed the fantastic atmosphere buzzing with people and decorated in a very unique way. After the chocolate shopping and beer, we decided to call it a day.
For dinner we went to a Kebab place. I was a bit hesitant to have falafel for dinner but I ordered a veggie platter and was pleasantly surprised. It was very yummy.
For dessert I decided to have chocs to get a sweet nights sleep.
Day Three – 8th August 2017
New day new activity! Today we had booked a chocolate workshop and tour. It was going to be a rainy day today so made sure we carried our rain jackets with us. The tour was going to start at 9am and the breakfast at the hostel started at 8:30am. So instead of making a close call, we decided to grab a quick bite from a bakery on the way. We came across a small bakery and the aroma of freshly baked croissants drew us in. We got one each and a coffee to go. They also had bananas which are a staple for both of us for breakfast.
We reached the meeting spot – just outside the famous choc chain shop Godiva. Our guide checked our bookings and confirmed. It was raining and we didn’t care about it. Everyone else was either fumbling with their brollies or looking for a dry spot. Well done ngx2! We stared a few minutes late as we were waiting for a family. They came and the kids infused lightness to the otherwise serious group. The guide then briefed us on the programme for the day. He informed us that we will be doing a bit of chocolate tasting first and then when heavy rain was forecasted we would do the chocolate workshop.
The chocolate tastings were going to be in an ascending order. We started with the lowest price and lowest quality chocolate. At each gourmet chocolatier we went to, they explained us the source and the flavours. The first place we visited was Corne. They had chocs which were €48 a kilo. Known for its white choc and hazelnut. As compared to Godiva (68/kilo) and probably a better quality. I am not a fan of white choc or hazelnut. We then went to another couple of chocolatiers and tried their specialities.
Then it was time for the exciting workshop. We went to this preset place where they had the working table set and ready for us. There were different items laid on our tables including, candied orange, biscuit, waffer biscuit etc. We were asked to dip them in the liquid chocolate and either choose to eat it straight away or let it solidify. I chose to eat half and keep half. Jay chose to save it for later (for me of course). Jay already was having a chocolate overdose and I was just getting started. 😜. Next was a fun competition of making a bear 🐻 from the chocolate. We let our creative juices flow and produced some creations. Our trays were then collected to be set in the freezer at a right temperature.
Next was watching chocolate being actually made. The chocolatier showed us how she filled up the moulds and ensured there were no bubbles etc. They were then set in the refrigerator. After getting a crash course in chocolate making, we got our own handmade chocs back. It was a good hands on experience.
The rain had slowed not completely stopped but our group soldiered on to the next stop. The guide took us to a shop which made chocolates in many ‘experimental’ flavours like basil, Cuban tobacco etc. Next stop was a chocolatier who used the sweetness of the cocoa butter to sweeten the chocolates rather than using sugar. I was like now we are talking! We tried 100% pure cocoa hot chocolate here. It was insane…so creamy and pure chocolate only! Yummilicious!
Next we went to a chocolatier who made their own chocolates. They imported their own beans from Cuba and other cocoa producing countries and we saw the chocolate making plant. All the cocoa imported for this industry is imported in the port of Amsterdam. Many processing businesses process the cocoa beans before sending them to Belgium for chocolate making. Since history, Amsterdam has played an important part in the chocolate making history of Belgium. We came across this and many interesting facts and stories on this tour.
After taking a sneak peak at how it’s made, our next stop was back in the chocolatiers mall near the Grand Platz. We were offered 2 flavours of chocolates and we observed the flavour notes. Now we were nearing the tour and we were promised that he was saving the best for the last. We went to Mary’s chocolatiers. They were originally the chocolatiers for the royal family and weren’t allowed to sell to the public. Thanking to the evolution of the world we had the privilege to taste this chocolate with truffles and champagne. The correct way to taste a chocolate is to put the whole piece in your mouth. So we did and for a few seconds, we were transported to an unreal world! It was fantastic. So many different flavours introducing themselves to our tongue in the constant presence of mr cocoa. Everyone was calm for a moment. We were then given the bags of the chocs we made. They looked a bit underwhelming after what we had tasted. With this we ended our chocolate tour and were high on chocolate for the next few hours.
Soon after we were looking for a place to have something savoury after all the sweetness. We went for lunch at a restaurant and then roamed around the streets of Brussels. Bought souvenirs and postcards, stamps and posted them out. We ended the day on a pleasant note exploring the streets.