A Belgian Break In Brussels

A couple of months ago, on a whim, Mark and I booked a weekend break in Brussels. Chosen for it’s proximity near to the top of the SecretEscapes search list more than overriding desire to go there (although the waffles were a big factor) we booked it, and EuroStar tickets, and set off last weekend.

Firstly, can I say how much I enjoy European train travel. The Eurostar took 2 hours 7 minutes from St Pancras, with a stop at Lille on route. I found the whole experience much more civilised than hauling out to Gatwick or Stansted for a sardine-packed flight. Starting at St Pancras negates the need for a transfer, and the money saved can be spent on breakfast at the Booking Office Bar (we didn’t have time on this occasion) and then in the very good choice of shops in the St Pancras shopping arcade. Beats the undercooked omelette and pack of Pringles we would have ‘enjoyed’ at Stansted.

We left London at 9am, already a warm day, and arrived in Brussels at lunch time, greeted by blue skies and sunshine. Hurrah! We stayed at the classic Stanhope Hotel – traditional decor and impeccable staff. It apparently has a 5 star rating, which I would have quibbled on the grounds of the slightly tired bathroom if the rest of the visit hadn’t been very pleasant indeed. A lovely breakfast included, and very helpful staff.

We were located in the European Parliament quarter, which we found on a Thursday night turns any bar in its vicinity into Canary Wharf on a sunny day – suits everywhere, crammed into every millimetre that still commanded the sun at 7pm. On our first night there we wandered locally and stumbled across a French restaurant with a group of people sitting outside – on that basis we went in, and enjoyed a very nice meal.

We hadn’t really researched the city before we arrived, aside from looking up a couple of recommended waffle cafes. At the station we bought 3 days travel cards, which entitles you to use the full metro, tram and bus service in the city – European city transport at its best. Honestly, every time I come home from such trips the extortionate price, unrelability and plain old stuck-in-its-ways state of the Underground makes me a little more mad. The Brussels trams were our main lifeline, transporting us between the more obvious ‘tourist’ clusters of the city and the main centre. 14 Euros for three days too, are you listening Boris?

I was pleasantly surprised by Brussels. I thought it would be pretty to look at and it was, but some of it was breathtaking, and some just plain interesting. As a budding photographer, Mark enjoyed the architecture, the views from the various high points and the projects as part of the city’s World Fair contributions in the 1950s – the more famous Atomium and the beautiful Oriental museum, with its Japanese and Chinese monuments and objets d’art.

One of the funniest things was the lack of people. In a city. We kept thinking we’d stumble across them but often didn’t! On the Saturday we finally ended up at the retail centre of the city at Place de Louise, and this was busy, but certainly no Oxford Street. That evening we ate in an amazing restaurant in the same area, which was deserted by the time we finished. Although it made for excellent service, we asked our waiter where everyone was. He shrugged and said as it was never sunny in Belgium, everyone had probably fled the city for impromptu weekend breaks.

Speaking of ‘escaping’ the city, although we didn’t get out to Bruges, we did take a tram south to the edge of the city and to the Bois de la Cambre. It’s the start of a dense forest which apparently goes on for miles, but at the start was styled more as a wooded park, with openings for sunbathing, and a very cute lake with the Chalet Robinson restaurant in the middle. A friendly ‘captain’ will ferry you across in a small boat for one Euro. Even here, on a sunny warm day, it was super quiet. In hindsight it would have been a lovely area to hire bikes – Brussels has a ‘Boris Bike’ similar scheme which is cheap and easy to navigate.

The Grand Place is the main tourist hotspot. In our enthusiastic explorations on the first day we came across it accidentally, following the cobbled streets until we found first the museum quarter (art lovers will enjoy the frequent exhibitions at the Margritte and BOZAR museums) and then the Grand Place. (“What’s that big spire?” “I don’t know – let’s follow it!”) This was busy – the obvious tourist-magnet being the amazing gothic buildings, including the impressive town hall, and the centre square where there is often entertainment. Surrounding the Grand Place are picturesque back streets, with everything from chocolate shops (so many!) to Leffe cafes, jewellery shops, souvenir rubbish shops, and plenty of restaurants professing to be the best ‘moules frites’ in the city. We declined to test the statement on the basis of many having pictures of food on the menus. Somehow makes me instantly suspicious…

We may have missed out on moules frites but overall the food was amazing. On the last day we made it to the recommended waffles cafe: the Liege waffles with icecream and hot fudge sauce were to die for. From the fantastic ‘Enjoy’ restaurant on Saturday night, to the pitta cafe (such a great idea, pittas stuffed with pretty much anything you like) there was a range of food and drink on offer for all tastes.

On our last day we also hunted down the Jeu De Balle flea market. And we found some Brussels locals! Clearly out for a bargain, it had attracted a huge crowd even in the baking midday heat. Testing my very average French, I started a haggling conversation with a unwitting stall holder for a crystal whisky decanter-cum-perfume bottle (I have the beginnings of a fledgling collection) which quickly descended into shaking head and nodding head, but in the end I was triumphant. From old cameras to vintage books, via pocket watches and fuse boxes, you really could have found anything. But don’t forget to haggle!

Thanks for having us Brussels, it was a fantastic antidote to London’s packed streets.

Stanhope Hotel

Brussels

Brussels

Brussels

Brussels

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From London, go West

I am lucky enough to have a country retreat at my disposal. I grew up just outside of the Cotswolds, near the city of Bath, and it’s where my parents still have their Big House In The Country. When London gets too much, or I need to clear my mind, there is no better tonic than getting on the train at Paddington and heading an hour and a half into the West Country.

Die-hard Londoners are sometimes hard to convince when it comes to leaving Zone 2 on a weekend. They might complain about the oyster fares and the rent in SW11, but even those who aren’t London-born and bred (which includes most of my city dwelling friends) feel that Brighton is the most rural they can go on a regular basis. Especially if it means losing signal: what good is a country view without the ability to Instagram it?

For the last few weeks I’ve known that the first week of April I’d be spending at Home (capital H) in Biddestone. I may be known to tut loudly at slow tourists on Oxford Street, but once my train pulls into the small station in the nearest town, my mind slows down.

Arriving home on Good Friday, I had nothing planned in the week ahead aside from a jaunt into the neighbouring county to visit my sister, and a hair appointment on Saturday in the best hair salon in Bath. For the first of my West Country recommendations, if you need somewhere for a hair cut or colour and fall into the category of ‘nowhere can surely be as good as London’ snobbery, then try Melanie Giles, a fantastic Aveda salon where they welcome you in from the rain to a giant cup of latte and a warm croissant. And the coffee is Monmouth, that of ‘queuing around Borough Market fame’ – thumbs up from my London crowd.

The best thing about living in a proper English village (the sort that attracts American and Japanese tourists to see the real scale dolls houses, duck pond and cricket green) is a proper pub, and Biddestone has a top notch one – again, for the London escapees, the head chef and owner of the Biddestone Arms was trained under Roux and earned his trade at La Gavroche. My family may have a personal friendship with the owners, but bias aside you can’t escape the bloody amazing food on offer.

One of the only activities you can readily enjoy on this turf is walking. Between villages, across walkways and pretty much to every ‘site of natural beauty’ in your guide books. This weekend we’ve been on two bracing walks – one to the farm shop up the road (forget your local Whole Foods, this is the real deal) and one to the village of Castle Combe, five miles as the crow flies and famous for its film set quality, in looks and in fact, it was where War Horse was filmed in fact. One local pub does what we have informally christened The Best Sandwiches In The World, but if to you a rural retreat means manor house and cream tea, they have an award-winning one of those too.

After day upon day sitting at a desk, on a train and slouched on the sofa (because let’s face it, you wax lyrical about living in London but when was the last time you went to the theatre, or ventured to the latest Barbican exhibition?) being able to get out of breath proper country walk, along a hillside with views you really can’t pay for, is a way to literally clear those metaphorical cob webs. Yes your phone signal will disappear, and the wi-fi / 3G speeds would give Eighties dial-up internet a run for its slowness, but your face will get some colour and the ‘tube stoop’ from hunching into the corner of the 8.15 Northern line will slowly ease up.

So yes, if this was a political broadcast on behalf of the West Country party, pictures of rolling fields and jersey cows would fade up right now, but I won’t apologise for the zeal. Escaping from London to the West Country is my tried and tested anti-depressant, and I recommend that to anyone.

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Biddestone Arms
Melanie Giles

West Country