When visiting for work in the Netherlands I mentioned I was off to Belgium before heading home. More than once I was asked, "why?". True, I could have travelled a little further on the train and scoffed a couple of croissants in Paris, but it was one of the only countries in Western Europe I'd not visited when living in the UK.
The picturesque Bruges and Ghent were a must, but I must admit I was ambivalent about Brussels until I learnt about the Hotel Metropole. Accommodation AND a tourist 'must-see' with its own entry in the guidebook, being one of the 'oldest and grandest' in Brussels was my lure. Initially commission to be built in a pre-existing building by a wealthy brewing family in the late 1800s, no expense was spared creating this grand Art Nouveau hotel.
I will admit it was a stunningly extravagant hotel, with sumptuous decor, but the staff were off-hand, unhelpful and it lacked an inviting atmosphere - it paled in comparison with the warm and elegant, Oud Huis de Peellaert I had just left in Bruges.
Luckily there was plenty to see in Brussels and, guidebook in hand I started my exploring in the lower town, not moving far from the sensory-overloading Grand Place (Grote Markt), once the medieval trading centre of Brussels. Gilded buildings line each side of the square and perseverance and an eagle eye had its rewards.
Le Renard was built in 1699 as the guild house for haberdashers and the details in the facade included cherubs playing with haberdashery ribbons!
Hotel de Ville, the town hall of Brussels, was built in the 1400s. With more time I would have liked to have taken a tour to explore the tapestry rooms, to climb the belfry and poke around in the council chambers.
Further around the square was Rue Charles Buls, featuring an 1899 gilded Art Nouveau plaque dedicated to the city from its appreciative artists.
Maison du Roi
Le Roi d'Espagne
The streets leading off the square are named reflecting the trading centre it once was.
Rue au Beurre
Leaving the Market I ventured passed The Falstaff, one of the Art Nouveau cafes dating from 1903.
Crossing Boulevard Anspach, which used to be the route of the River Senne, I looped around to Eglise St-Jean-Baptiste-au-Beguinage. A this baroque church once stood in the heart of a beguinage - the religious order of lay nuns, who 'opted for a secluded existence devoted to charitable deeds, but not bound by strict religious vows' on the death of their husbands. What wonderful ladies.
Galleries St-Hubert is notably the first covered shopping arcade in Europe, opened in 1847. It remains lined with cafes, a cinema, theatre and lots and lots of chocolate shops.
No visit to Brussels is complete without a trip to visit Mannekin Pis. This wee (ha ha) guy has been in place since the early 1600s, although, like the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, he has been abducted a number of times. There are many rumours as to his background which include that he was the son of a duke from the 12th century, caught taking a leak against a tree, mid-battle, and was commemorated in bronze as a symbol of military courage.
He also receives outfits from visiting dignitaries, usual a miniature version of a national costume. However, he does own an Elvis and a Santa Suit.
Only two remnants of the city walls still stand in Brussels - this is the Tour Noire (The Black Tower), built in the 13th century.
The second, under restoration, can be found in the Upper Town,
above the Dame de la Chappelle.
A deliciously tart (no pun intended) raspberry pastry and one of the best hot chocolates I've ever had in my life was at the original Le Pain Quotidien as I rested my weary bones on my afternoon wanderings.
Crossing the road took me to a beautiful garden, the Place du Petit Sablon, surrounded by statues of medieval guildsmen.
The Rue de la Regenceregent took me towards the old Art Nouveau department store, Old England, that is now the Musee des Instruments de Musique,
and down through the Mont des Arts carillion clock that includes figures from Belgian history that move on the hour.
Back-tracking, I looped back up to the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and the national library, with its impressive gardens and boulevards.
Place Royale Konings Plein, with the royal family in residence, was strangely desolate,
as was the Parc de Bruxelles. I would love to return here in Spring or Summer to see the trees and gardens in their full splendour.
And back to where we started, the Grote Markt, with a turn in the weather.