How to console ourselves upon leaving Paris? Perhaps it helped that Belgium promised some comparable standards for food, the relief of slowing the pace down a bit, the anticipated charm of read about smaller towns, and a good variety of things visually pleasing…oh yes, and a reputation for outstanding chocolate, and beer apparently elevated to an art form, though I remained sceptical on the latter. Having recently left the much coveted regions of French wine and champagne vineyards, were we really meant to believe that "beer" was something to get excited about? Well, more on that later.
Our first Belgium stop was in a small town just outside of Bruxelles named, Halle. Our now routine tactic of asking locals for B&B possibilities, started here (by no coincidence) at the local chocolatier's, where the proprietor kindly phoned everyone she could think of who might know of something for us - no luck there, but at least (and quite importantly) we now had chocolate! After some more querying we were pointed off towards the countryside in search of an inn, of no exact name or location. A bit of a wild goose-chase, particularly with the panic of evening setting in, not to mention tiredness and hunger; but lured by the hope of finding something a little more colourful than the typical city hotel we decided to try our luck first before proceeding directly on to Bruxelles.
We got our wish, it seemed, as just as we were about to resign ourselves over to the drive to Bruxelles, a B&B sign appeared, and a knock at the door confirmed a vacancy. Here we were led, against incessant protests of a large Alsatian dog, up a treacherous flight of stairs (more like a ladder with the added safety hazard of an overhead beam midway) to a rather bleak looking room, which bore signs, such as etched growth measurements in the wood, that it had once served more lovingly as a child's bedroom. Discombobulated, with the settled floors giving the illusion one leg was suddenly shorter than the other, we reluctantly took it. Initially disappointing, in the end, however, it turned out a pleasant and comfortable enough stay, made especially so by our very personable British-Flemish hosts, who so enjoyed their business they referred to it as a hobby. They were proud too that their home did not put on any "indecent" airs such as certain B&B's they had visited in the U.S. whose luxuries they viewed as un-homey. At their recommendation we went for dinner at the local restaurant, which was a lovely 15 minute walk across farm fields stretching to the horizons with various crops and animals to gaze at on the way. At our destination, as the only tourists amongst local villagers, we pondered our Flemish menus which, fortunately the waitress was able to interpret enough so we could place our orders.
By our hosts' recommendation again, we opted the next day to take the train (about a 10 minute ride) into Bruxelles rather than drive, and spent half a day in and around the Grand Palace area. Unfortunately, preparations for an evening event meant that the beautiful buildings in this main square were partially obscured by bleachers, in the form of moulded blue plastic chairs, which were an obvious eyesore, and meant too that the real essence of these otherwise elegant surroundings was not possible to capture sufficiently through a camera lens.
Some wandering around included seeing the famous Mannequin Pis statue, and (on a less cultural note) the curious sight of a monk, whom I then decided to inconspicuously film, in a gourmet chocolate shop - apparently, they don't just live on simple alms anymore. To end with, we decided on a museum visit. Retrospectively, it would likely have been more interesting and fun to explore the René Magritte Museum, but we chose instead the National Museum, whose modern art wing, which we had actually hoped to see was, sadly, closed - not that the old masters could ever be disappointing, but we had to this point weighed mostly in that direction and were ready to move on from the 18th century. To that end, highlights here were for us perhaps the eccentric Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel works.
Up next: Gent