We reached Brussels before sunset, perfect for checking out the Bourse Christmas Market. We’d picked the right lodging in some ways and the worst in others. The hotel was right next to the market and the hub of the city, but it was also somehow very loud at night with clanging and banging and strange noises. Eventually we figured out that this was a combination of old water pipes and chairs being moved in the restaurant (Maharaja Tandoori) on the other side of the wall (and downstairs) from our room. And these were no ordinary chairs, they were deliberately comically large fancy chairs, so they were heavy and had to dragged like an anchor just to move an inch.
I was not kidding around, neither are these chairs
However, before we experienced the haunted hotel we ate dinner at the Market, full of even better sausages and sauces than London. And wine you could walk around drinking. And (cold) champaign you could walk around drinking too.
However, we quickly figured out there’s little patience for English and so we got ripped off, sort of, right away. It turns out that the food trays from all the booths are recyclable at a recycling center set up on a side street. You’ll get a euro back for each plate returned. When we tried to give the plates back to the first vendor she sort of yelled at us and got very angry in French. There were no signs (at least that caught our eye) alerting anyone to this recycling scheme at the market itself, only at the recycle center, which we’d never passed by because the metro station is at the same square as the market and the recycle center was farther away than the market, the metro, or our hotel. When we went to a different vendor to get a different dish they explained it in English and we got a little hot under the collar about the other lady because we’d already disposed of our dishes and glasses. Oh well.
After getting our fill we walked a block diagonally away to Grand Place to catch the famous light show projected on the fancy old buildings. This was another occasion on the trip where using a prime 35mm was wholly inadequate, there’s not a single spot in that little square where you can fit an entire arcade properly within the frame.
It was still somewhat early so we decided to just amble about and see what we could find. Which ended up being several artistic (and some edible) representations of the male genitals. Do folks in Brussels have a problem or are the rest of us too uptight?
I had pushed to go to Brussels on this trip. Sam had already gone with her sister decades ago, but I’d never been. I figured it would be an easy addition since it’s less than two hours away from London and Paris by EuroStar and has a famous Christmas Market tradition. The Christmas Market is one of the most traditional and festive looking so it didn’t take much convincing, but once you’ve checked out the market what else is there to do?
Well those famouos Belgian Waffles for one. And the famous Belgian Beer markets (hyped up with gluten free options online!). I was excited to eat a cold outdoor breakfast at Sister’s Cafe, famous for its gluten free menu items. I was confused by the beer menu though (yes, I was going to have a beer with breakfast – I’m on vacation!) because some of the gluten free beers listed barley as ingredients and one even said “wheat!” Was this a translation error? The waitress said “don’t worry, nobody has ever had a problem with our beer!” I tepidly said okay and ordered one, still googling for details but not wanting to hold up the rest of the ordering process and be “that guy.” (they were busy)
When the beer came out it was already popped. I looked it over. Right on the side it said “Barley.” Wtf? I looked up the beer manufacturer and it turns out all these gluten-free Belgian beers are “deglutinated” wheat or barley beers. Meaning they did something to it to alter the gluten protein. Apparently this works perfectly for celiacs because that protein that’s altered is the one that triggers their issues, which is technically NOT an allergic reaction, but an immune system issue. Well I’m not a celiac, EoE is a weird allergy and immune system problem all rolled into one (ain’t I lucky!). For celiacs the reaction to gluten causes pain, but does not produce an allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that could cause death. EoE alone will not cause death either, but it’s almost always atopic with a food allergy. I have already gone to urgent care after consuming beer with too much (?) barley in it because my face began to swell up. So it’s a little bit annoying that there’s an entire industry now to protect celiacs and some of the tools of the trade are things that are great for them, but could KILL someone who’s actually allergic.
Anyway, so I was frantically googling this particular beer and found online reviews of it that even said to stay away from it and other deglutinated beers if you’re actually allergic to wheat or barley. D’oh!
I actually didn’t know the difference between celiacs, allergies, and EoE until that morning, so it was a learning experience that I should be grateful I learned the easy way instead of landing in a foreign country’s emergency room. Still, if you’re gonna market your restaurant as “safe” maybe figure this out? OR, better yet, actually do have beers that DON’T HAVE WHEAT in them ever at all? They do exist. I’ve had them.
Now is a good time to remind our audience that there ARE gluten-free beers that don’t use wheat or barley at all and are safe for celiacs AND allergy sufferers. They aren’t all “boutique” batches either. Anheiser Busch makes one called Red Bridge that’s a decent approximation of a basic cheap lager (and I have in my fridge right now chilling for the weekend). Finding Red Bridge was a godsend for me. The bottles all literally say “Gluten-free Sorghum Beer made without wheat or barley.” But these were not that.
[at this point out that I’m a special snowflake who is allergic to buckwheat as well, even though that’s a gluten-free grain – so I have to be really careful because often “gluten free” beer is just made with buckwheat]
Hopefully they can get this CRISPR allergy vaccine stuff brewing (get it? I’m almost a Grohl-certified punnist!) and then I can eat and drink whatever I want.
I explained to the waitress at Sisters Cafe that I should get some kind of award or something because I was (according to her) the first person who couldn’t drink the gluten free beer there! Understandably the place was packed and she was not in the mood, but she took the beer off the bill all the same so we’re good – I just wish people wouldn’t conflate “gluten free” with allergies. Also, both the regular and gluten-free (banana flour or something) waffles were… meh. We were both sort of surprised the waffles were completely underwhelming. Especially later that day when we had some Belgian food that was fantastic. More on that later…
After breakfast we hupped it to the far end of town to visit the Atomium. Keep in mind this was super easy because Brussels has new trains and uses a “just tap” system like London. To be honest, with the Bauhaus-adjacent style architecture, barren trees, industrial surroundings and gray skies it felt a little like a forgotten Eastern Bloc enclave.
After traveling through all the protons, electrons, and the nucleus we left the atom and had time to kill so we sat halfway between the atom and the Siberian Prison to munch on chocolate Sam bought near the Grand Place a few hours earlier. Then, with more time to kill, we walked to the design museum. Why? Well not because the giant red [insert your own appendage euphemism here] got us excited, it was because the tickets were included with admission to the Atomium. However, we ended up only using it as a restroom since we discovered that backpacks had to be put in a locker, their lockers only took a specific denomination of Euro, we didn’t have that euro, and we pretty much saw everything while taking turns walking to the bathroom at the back of the museum anyway.
After the museum we still had time leftover so we walked through Parc d’Ossegem Laeken (Alaikum Salaam, my brother!) as a slight detour on the way back to the train stop.
The park has some peculiarities, including a neon green colored stream (it’s not St. Patrick’s day and this ain’t Chicago, so what’s up with that?), rows of cylindrically carved greenery (without leaves now), a tree that has a branch growing out of itself and then back in (never seen that before), and a stepped area of bushes with flat area (stage probably). The above picture is of the latter, which looks a bit like a creepy alien invasion scene with the atomium towering over the wintery color-bled trees.
You can find the weird branch growing in and out of itself on google maps, at first glance it just looks like it’s resting on the other branch. It’s not. It’s growing in and out of it. Am I the only one a little creeped out by that? Maybe this is a normal occurrence with trees and somebody can clue me in on how and why? I know banyan trees basically make this their whole schtick, but it’s odd to see any other tree do it.
Back at La Bourse it was time for food. We had a goal of eating some of the famous Belgian Fries that a lot of restaurants were advertising. We picked one very close to our hotel called Manneken Gourmet Burger & Fries. The place had a neon sign and a Bob’s Big Boy statue towering over the fry grill. The gimmick with Belgian fries is that they’re fried twice in beef fat.
It’s no gimmick. This makes for amazing fries. We both agreed these may be the best damn fries we’ve had in our entire lives. Oh, and then you pick from a selection of 23 different crazy sauces (I think we got the truffle) to dip the fries in. Y’all know that’s heaven for Mr. “I have to have sauce on everything” Andrew.
And they don’t just have fries, they cook burgers and traditional diner stuff right in front of you so you get that classic American Diner (Bob’s Big Boy) smell. But we’d already tag teamed so Sam could go get more Christmas Market sausage while I was ordering the fries.
I have to be honest, I looked up their website while writing this and noticed they sell sweet potato fries (something we’ve been making at home a lot with the air fryer) and I feel like a fool for not noticing when I had a chance to try them!
It goes without saying this was an outdoor meal, but Manneken has table and chairs right there on La Bourse all year round. So we sat and watched people coming and going at the Christmas Market as the sun set while crunching on the best fries.
I want to say we had more mulled wine after that, but I don’t remember. What I do remember is that we decided to do laundry at Wasbar at the other side of La Bourse because it was closer than the laundromat we’d picked out by our hotel in Paris and it would give us more time to do other things in Paris than laundry. Sounds like a simple plan, but look closer at that business name: Wasbar. Wash Bar. It’s a chain of restaurants with laundry machines. A good idea, right? Well, sort of. We discovered that most of the laundering folks weren’t restaurant customers (neither were we) so they’d leave their stuff in the machines forever and unlike a regular laundromat there weren’t that many machines to go round (get it? Grohl I’m coming for you!). And they were the tiny electric European kind that take forever to dry. And multiple dryers were broken, but not in a “won’t turn on” way, they were broken in a “I’ll throw up a weird code on the screen after 20 minutes of faking like I’m drying but there’s no heat going on here.” We ended up switching our laundry around multiple different machines and waiting for other folks to remove their stuff and asking nicely if we could stay past closing to not have to drag wet clothes to Paris on Sunday. The owner (or manager?) said it was fine because (as with every restaurant) they have to stay hours past closing anyway to clean and prep. They also didn’t charge us for the loads that ended up being broken, so it all worked out.
In the morning we realized since we wouldn’t have to go through immigration to take the 4pm train to Paris we could take a leisurely approach. We walked around town in a different direction than Friday night, southeast towards the Palace.
But not without getting more Belgian Chocolate first.
We had saved up our hunger to eat at the outdoor restaurant in the park, Woodpecker Parc Royale. But at opening time they had just arrived and started to set up the business for the day, clearly not ready to cook for a good while longer. We gave up on that and walked south past the Musees Royaux Des Beaux-Arts and a few churches while looking for new masticating opportunities. Eventually we settled on Cafe Leffe. I recognized Leffe as one of the Belgian beer brands I’d enjoyed in my carefree pre-diagnosis days. They had ample outdoor seating next to a pleasant roundabout and sheltered from the biting wind.
Still early in the day I decided to order an Irish coffee, which was great. I ordered the “Belgian Specialty” of “Stoemp” and Sam had the steak. “Stoemp” doesn’t sound appetizing by name, but it’s essentially the Belgian sto-amp (get it, does that count against my Dave Grohl pun run?) on Bangers and Mash; mashed potatoes with sausage. I know I know, I didn’t rave about the Bangers and Mash at Mother Mash in London so why was this different?
Well, what I didn’t mention in the London blog was that MotherMash was having 5 (yeah, it’s Europe) carpenters sand down a new front door about ten feet from where we were eating. Plus it was dreary and raining out. At Cafe Leffe the bangers and mash had lots of gravy and seemed to have a better flavor profile. Plus the sun had come out, and I was washing it down with alcohol spiked coffee and cold sweet cider. And my wife was getting some much needed iron from a medium rare steak with an ample supply of well rendered bearnaise sauce.
I also didn’t mention in the London blog that the waiter at Mother Mash basically forgot about us outside…or maybe everyone has to go wait for ten minutes to pay inside? The guy at Cafe Leffe came back (I didn’t order the cider at first).
In any event, both dishes and drinks were very satisfying on empty stomachs and powered us through the rest of the day in Brussels. We strolled (I need to google more synonyms for walking…) down to the Palace of Justice, but by that time the wind had picked up so we decided to just take the elevator to the lower streets that wouldn’t have as much airflow. Down there we found some little shops to get souvenirs as the sun tried to stay for good (at least that day).
Back at La Bourse before jumping on EuroStar we wanted to have one last go at the mulled wine and sausages.
After finishing we grabbed our luggage from the hotel (which was only a few steps from the Market) and made it to the EuroStar terminal at sunset. We tried to get on an earlier train from the same platform (to the same destination) but were told to “find the train manager.” When the train manager discovered our tickets weren’t first class we were given the cold shoulder to pound sand until the next train arrived in 45 minutes. On the plus side it gave me the opportunity to take a nice photo of the sunset reflecting on the outgoing train we weren’t allowed on because we’re not rich (enough)…