*Post by Anto*
Another exciting 6:30am wake-up, sadly this time without the adults managing to sneak out of bed for coffee before Miss A woke up and noticed a new day was off and running. After a quick milk for Astrid and a last minute pack for the adults it was off to the metro, via the corner bakery for some breakfast treats. The weather in Paris was quite mild – we were hoping this was a sign of things to come. The metro over to Gare du Nord was as quick and as efficient as ever – less than 15 minutes after walking out our front door we were doing the ‘stare up at the departures board’ dance trying to work out which platform our train will be leaving from. This was to be our first Thalys train, which aside from being more expensive (don’t get us started on the Eurail pass…) from the outside looked the same as the other TVG’s we had been on thus far. One difference was that they had a ticket checking person on every door – this certainly slowed down the boarding process but there was no rush.
Onboard the train we were to have free WiFi internet, which Anto managed to get working after only half an hour – we noticed that virtually everyone on these longer trains will be using a laptop – either pretending to work, or more commonly watching tv. Our first class ticket included a breakfast served at our seat – with a choice of either a sweet (carrot cake) or savoury (cheese) all with bread(s) a croissant, yoghurt and all the normal trimmings. Unlike airline food the quality has been pretty high, although we are yet to have anything other than breakfasts. The train was as efficient as ever, quickly getting up to around 310km/h and before we knew it it was time to re-apply the layers of coats, gloves scarves etc. As the train was terminating in Brussels we were not in a silly rush to get off, which was not a bad decision until as we were stepping off the train started ever so slowly rolling back out of the station – for about 5 seconds until it stopped quickly, I suspect that someone left the handbreak off (do trains even have a handbreak…)
We wandered out of the station after a quick debate as to the benefits of walking or subway’s – given the distance (less than 2km according to google maps) the walking won out and we set off loaded up with bags and an Astrid into the crisp Belgian morning. On arrival at the hotel we were informed that our room was ready, complete with the requested cot – which made for a quick turn-around and out into the streets for exploring. The morning consisted of a general wander looking at the interesting street art, scultptures and realising that unlike Paris, Brussels has actual hills (although not anything like Luxembourg). We had noticed one or two (million) chocolate shops, along with quite a few interesting biscuit and ‘gourmet’ shops – the locations of which were noticed for later…
As it was fairly cold (or freezing as some might call it, probably about 4 degrees) and it had been a while since breakfast we decided to find our lunch venue – today a Brussels institution called Chez Leon – which was tucked away down an alley absolutely packed with restaurants and just the smell of food cooking was making us hungry. The mission today was to sample the following Belgian standards: Mussels, french fries, Beer and chocolate.
Lunch covered off the first three (at least for Anto) with a le Complete Leon, consisting of a prawn stuffed tomato, a huge serve of mussels served in the pot they were cooked in, as much french fries as you wanted (the original serve was more than enough for the two of us..) and a glass of their house brewed beer. We noted that we are back in a place where bread is just put out on the table before a meal, with enough bread to feed about 10 appearing in a basket when we arrived Astrid was provided with a free kids meal – we chose the chicken (although mussels were an option…) which turned out to be 1/4 of a bbq chook with gravy and (another) huge serve of chips and some home made apple sauce. Nic had about 3 options (including a garden salad) but opted for a leek tart, which she reported the filling was nice but the pastry not quite up to Parisian standards (oh how picky we have become.)
After an extended eating session, which Astrid did us proud by (mostly) ignoring the chips to eat her chicken – and sampling dad’s prawns, but not the mussels, Miss A was offered her first chocolate of the day – in mousse form. Once again the serve was sufficient for Nic and Anto to have a good helping (to save Astrid from eating too much of it – it’s our justification and we are sticking to it).
After lunch we did some more window shopping before noticing that Miss A was starting to sag & heading back to the warm and cosy hotel for her afternoon nap. Which was a great plan in principle, but a failure in execution as someone decided the carrier was fine to sleep in – had a 10 minute nap on the walk and then was wide awake by the time she got into the cot – after a frustrating 20 minutes of trying to argue with a 16 month old about the sensibleness of a quick nap before more fun we all rugged back up (the rather icy wind had picked up) and headed out for more sightseeing.
A quick walk had us to place de Petit Sablon where there was cute little garden with 48 bronze statuettes around the outside representing the medieval guilds. Sadly the park was closed for maintenance – however the statues were readily visible from the road. The Sablon area was interesting and if you loved antiques there were plenty of shops to pick from.
We then wandered around in the general direction of the Mannekin pis a very tourist overrun fountain of a small boy peeing into a fountain. Luckily for us this put us right in the path of a fairly large number of waffle selling establishments, and it had been ages since lunch…… (not really).
We figured that Miss A probably needed a rest from the carrier and a hot drink wouldn’t go astray. We found an eat-in place (which pushed the price from 1-2 Euro…) and ordered both a Belgian waffle with banana and a Leige waffle, which has sugar inside that carmalises as it cooks, with dark chocolate (when in Belgium right?). We attempted to get a hot chocolate but apparently they had run out. When our waffles arrived we realised our beginners mistake of only the things you specifically request will appear on the waffle – the leige with choloate was quite good but the belgian with only banana was fairly dry and uninteresting. Next time cream and syrup will be ordered.
A quick dose of retail therapy later and we were carrying several kilos of chocolate. Belgium really is the place to go when you love chocolate as much as we do. We decided it really was time for the promised hot chocolate and where else would you get one other than from Godiva – while it wasn’t the best we have had – it was very very good. With Miss A providing no end of entertainment for some Japanese tourists as she shared the drink with her parents. After some sun-setting photos of the grand square, one of the most impressive squares we have ever seen, which was looking better and better as it got darker and the lights started coming on, we decided we should take miss A home for dinner before she really cracked it.
After quickly dumping our bags and the carrier we wandered back to a local brasserie we had spied on our travels. From the outside there wasn’t much to see, but once inside the decor was both stylish, authetically old and quite attractive – the menu while not huge was full of interesting sounding dishes. Nic had a quite nice glass of house wine, while Anto sampled another Belgian beer (as recommended by our waitress) Nic had actual choices and opted for black truffle stuffed ravolli with a fresh tomato sauce and anto had a really good suckling pig with all kinds of nice accompaniments, let’s just say Astrid shared her parents meals and had a side serve of a vegetable (which may have been twice fried and served in a pretty cone).
As the hour was getting late and Miss A was starting to look tired we figured we should scamper while the going was good, forgoing the coffee we both could have probably done with. Just as we were about to settle the bill our waitress re-appeared with a little package for Astrid – which turned out to be a small almond cake – which was promptly scoffed to great delight of all involved. If we had have know that bribery was that easy we could have sat back and had our coffee in peace. We have noticed this behaviour a bit – waiters (and waitresses to be old fashioned seem to think nothing of giving out treats to at least our small child – something that we just don’t see happen at home, at least not without some checking with a parent first. The general attitude to feeding children seems quite a bit more relaxed, with chocolate powder advertised for adding to infants (and older) milk readily available in the supermarkets – and at least used by one child we saw in the local park. Breakfasts seem to commonly consist of hot chocolate (or coffee even as the children get older) and a pain au chocolate – which is like a croissant with the addition of (usually) dark chocolate through the middle. That being said there do not appear to be loads of overweight looking kids around so they must be doing something right…