I love the idea of relaxing holidays. Sun, books, lying around, wine. Then I go on holidays, and do stupid things like travel from Dublin to Leiden via Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp in 3 days. Then I wonder why I’m exhausted when I come home.
Brussels was a favourite day trip of mine when I lived in Holland. It has a feel of both Utrecht and Paris, but with an atmosphere that is entirely its own. We stayed in a beautiful Belle Epoque apartment with a garden in St.Gilles (complete with cat) and basically managed to explore the whole city in a day and a half, from the Grand Place, to frites at Maison Antoine, to the flea market at Jeu du Balles, but these places were the highlights:
Le Wine Bar Sablon de Marolles
This was the first place we tried in Brussels, and it was a tough act to follow. There wasn’t one particular thing that made it special, it was a combination of all the different factors. A cosy wine bar lit by candles, an extensive menu with food as good as it sounded, great wine, friendly and attentive staff, it all came together. Our waiter went through the whole menu in English and recommended wine pairings for each dish, steering us away from more expensive options if he didn’t think they were suitable. We shared a beautiful charcuterie plate, complete with homemade rillettes and ham and parsley terrine, some roasted bone marrow with Parmesan, and burrata with roasted vegetables. Each dish was wonderful, with great ingredients simply prepared . We had lovely glasses of Roussane and Grenache to match alongside. We were even more pleasantly surprised when the bill came in at around 40 each, despite several glasses of wine each.
Nordzee – Mer du Nord
Recommended by pretty much everyone I spoke to, Nordzee-Mer du Nord is a corner fish shop with a counter where you can order freshly cooked fish and glasses of wine for a small price to eat standing up at tables on the square. It’s very busy and there’s no formal queuing system, so you edge your way towards the counter and make mildly intrusive eye contact with the efficient staff until they take your order, pay, and then wait for your name to echo across the square about 5-1o minutes later. We had an amazing crab burger with watercress, a tomato glaze and tartar sauce, and some decent, if a little bland calamari together with two glasses of French Sauvignon Blanc for €16. There is also a cute little tapas stall on a nearby corner doing much the same thing, to slightly lesser crowds. The area around it is the fish market, and so stuffed to the gills with fish restaurants (sorry, the pun was there just waiting to happen) and nice old fashioned corner bars. The same square is also home to the Cremerie de Linkebeeke, a renowned cheese shop.
This is both my favourite Brussels bar and beer. I love any bar that looks like it hasn’t changed in 100 years, and luckily Brussels has plenty of these. Mort Subite has a great Belle Epoque interior, and slightly pricey (by Brussels standards) Belgian beer, including its eponymous brand. The staff are diligent in their attempts to ignore you, but speedy if you finally catch them. Locals all seemed to shout and wave their arms, but my Irish mortification at putting people to any trouble wouldn’t allow that. Their Faro beer there is my new favourite, a light slightly bitter brown beer with a caramel aftertaste.They serve bar snacks like cheese with celery salt, and sandwiches as well.
This place was a great tip from the guys over at GastroGays, a casual Irish-owned fish and chips place near the Grand Place. Each day they serve a selection of fried fresh fish, lovely mayonnaise and chips all for around €10. We arrived at 10pm and it was still packed. We ended up at a shared table beside an Irish couple, who went for the classic trick of talking about the other diners in broken Irish, assuming that we couldn’t understand them. The service was a bit forgetful, but the fish and chips were great. I tried Skrei, a Norwegian cod that seems to be particularly popular in Brussels, with lemon and fennel panko, and basil and lemon mayonnaise. This is a place I’d definitely make a regular spot if I was a local.
Bruges & Ghent
On Saturday we went for a double day trip of Bruges and Ghent. Pro tip: just pick one, this was exhausting. Bruges was predictably crammed with tourists, and a bit the less for it. It is spectacularly beautiful, but maybe best to be visited on a weekday or off season. You can wander off the beaten track into quieter areas pretty quickly, but all of the most scenic spots like the Rozenhoedkaai and the Begijnhof were absolutely filled with hordes taking selfies so you spend your time trying to duck and weave out of family photos. It’s also very pricey to eat, so we ended up having a lunch of frites from the carts near the cathedral. Ghent was very quiet by comparison, but we were pretty wrecked when we got there, so we only wandered for an hour, got a drink in the entertainingly eccentric De Dulle Griet and headed back for the train. It’s a lovely spot, with a mix of medieval centre and slightly more industrial hinterland that still feels very welcoming.
Again we only spent a few hours in Antwerp, as part of the three train and one bus marathon trip that brought us from Brussels back to Leiden, and as always, I wish I’d had more time there. Antwerp is a fascinating city, with a lovely old medieval centre combined with incredibly forward design shops. If I won the lottery, I would come here to shop a lot. There are lots of little squares in the heart of the city, replete with terraced bars to enjoy the sunshine. Even on Easter Sunday, nearly the whole town was open, so we wandered around and browsed before settling for a burger lunch at Dansing Chocola, a boho type bar near the river.