Three nights in… Brussels

The destination

The Belgian capital has become a regular transfer point as my wife and I shuttle between the UK and Holland by Eurostar / Thalys; it was also one of the first places we took a holiday together. Our honeymoon tour also technically started there, but that was only an overnight stop en route to Switzerland via Germany. For our anniversary, then, we decided to revisit properly, extending the (UK) bank holiday weekend for a three night stay.

The tourist attraction

We had another reason to head to Brussels specifically – a particularly geeky travel project we’d had in mind for a while. Alaina and I are both fans of board games, and one of the obscure highlights of our collection is Bruxelles 1893, casting the players as architects in the era of Art Nouveau. It took us a surprisingly long time to realise that all the buildings featured on the boards were actual places, but once we had, the idea of touring them was inevitable. So here’s Alaina with a rather different take on ‘hunting the big five’:

In pinning down their precise locations I discovered we’d been tantalisingly close to one of them, the elaborate Maison Saint-Cyr, during a previous trip. In fact, I can’t believe we missed it during our wanderings nearby! But sometimes things can be hidden in plain sight, and seeking out each of the Art Nouveau buildings I’d found during my research allowed us to interact with the city in a new way. I’d filled a google map with possible places of interest, and tracking these down not only lead us to unfamiliar areas, but made us view familiar ones as if with fresh eyes; we were soon interrogating every street for possible examples beyond my list. Whilst you might not be motivated by architecture – or board games! – specifically, having a theme like this seems like a good way to revisit somewhere that you may have ticked off most of the standard tourist trail already.

The accommodation

Hotel Metropole, Brussels

Hailing from 1895, the Hotel Metropole is Brussels’ only surviving 19th century hotel, and thus seemed a more fitting choice for our project than one of the many modern offerings from the major chains (although they do participate in the Preferred Hotels & Resorts loyalty scheme). I found better rates than available direct via booking.com ‘genius’ discounts, for which I was able to double-dip via the avios e-store too. Two months ahead of our stay, rates were a little over €100 a night, but beware the remarkably steep €28 per person, per day breakfast charge!

Given the hotel’s vintage, it’s perhaps not surprising that the public areas are incredibly ornate, whereas rooms – whilst huge – are more basic, with some dated furnishings; so if you’re not after the history, I’m not sure I’d automatically recommend it. We were able to make the most of the property’s best features by using the piano bar for a round of Bruxelles 1893 – of course we brought it with us! – one evening; and stopping for coffee and cakes at the Café Metropole between sightseeing expeditions another day. For those, the location was ideal: De Brouckere station is just outside, and is on both the north/south tram lines 3 and 4 (for Bruxelles Midi or reaching the main Art Nouveau area of Ixelles) and east/west metro lines 1 and 5 for easy access to our targets around Parc du Cinquantenaire.

The meal

La Quincaillerie, Brussels

For the evening of our wedding anniversary some friends booked a table for us at La Quincaillerie – and covered the bill too! This turned out to be just around the corner from the Horta museum, and a beautiful conversion of an old ironmonger store into an oyster bar and intimate restaurant, closely-packed tables squeezed into two rooms and around upper level balconies. I rarely tackle a full three course meal but, intrigued by the perfect egg at 63 degrees, here I couldn’t resist. I’m no authority to determine whether it was truly perfect, but all six dishes we tried were excellent, as was the service. Definitely recommended, but booking looks essential given the limited space.

The journey

Despite having moved to Bristol, we continue to consider Eurostar the obvious way to get to Belgium – and Alaina will soon be trying it all the way to Holland. Our many London – Brussels – Rotterdam journeys have been straightforward to book, but Bristol – London – Brussels is trickier due to, well, involving more British travel. In principle one can book the full itinerary with Eurostar, giving protection for the London connection; but in practice they couldn’t find availability, nor could we use our railcard for the domestic legs. You’re also covered for the connection if you book to the (fictional) London International station, but that didn’t seem to be possible online. So we settled for separate bookings, although I was wise enough not to have picked the cheapest advance fares between Bristol and London, which commit you to a particular service. Both trips experienced disruption that would have been even more expensive otherwise… To salvage something from our experience, here’s a few observations that might help others:

  • Despite various pre-departure emails, GWR expects you to keep track of their endless engineering works instead of giving you a warning when your booking is affected. In our case, a planned 10am departure had slid to 10:15, and all journeys were taking a route which was half an hour longer. Fortunately we had got to the station early enough to grab the late-running 09:15.
  • The new Eurostar trains may have many more seats, but the security and departure areas at St. Pancras are the same size they always were. On the Saturday of a summer bank holiday, that’s just not enough space, so when we did arrive, it was to find the queues at a standstill as they tried to ease the overcrowding caused by an earlier delay.
  • In the event of a trespasser on the line in an area that uses electric trains, if given the opportunity to leave and use alternative modes of transport, do so. Our return Eurostar got caught up in this, but after two and a half hours optimistically sat at Ebbsfleet International we had to take a taxi if we were to have any hope of boarding a train to Bristol that night.
  • Eurostar gets some credit for how they handled this: during the delay they gave out water and snacks; and the next morning I had an automated email with a link to collect a partial refund (amusingly, Alaina also got one inviting her to review our experience).
  • However, despite more than a three hour delay on a two hour journey, this refund only amounted to half of the affected leg, so 25% of what we paid overall. This compares pretty unfavourably with both the ‘delay repay’ scheme on most domestic high-speed train services, where you’d get t100% of the return fare; or to EU-261 compensation for delayed flights, where we’d have been looking at €250 each.
  • Nor is there anything for additional expenses – the taxi to Kings Cross cost more than both of our refunds combined! – although good travel insurance should help with those.

The Photos

This collection is of course dominated by architectural shots, but we did also take the time to seek out a few pieces of street art too (which I’ve put nearer the start in case you’ve already checked out the Art Nouveau tour).