The hotel looked heaps grander on the internet than it was in real life, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke hung in the room, despite the fact I’d selected ‘non-smoking’. The decor looked like it had dropped straight out of a 1960’s Bond movie – plush sofas, curtains made of heavy fabrics and clashing colours – and I was expecting Mr Bond to walk straight through the door…but he didn’t!
I couldn’t waste my last night tho, having partied hard in Amsterdam and Cologne it was time to explore yet another European city, solo. So, in the name of spontaneity I tried to find a local traditionally Belgian restaurant for dinner. Unfortunately where I had chosen to stay wasn’t near anywhere of remote interest – edible or otherwise – but a subway ride and short walk through outer Brussels brought me to a small ‘traditional’ Belgian restaurant (so said the sign on the door). I wasn’t convinced as the venue left little to be desired both for dinner and dancing, so I shan’t bother mentioning it here.
In the morning it was time to check out of the unintentionally ’60’s Bond-style hotel and check into Brussels. How many chocolate shops can one girl see in 10 hours? Well, let’s find out.
First off, is a place that any chocolate lover (or general lover of lovely things) certainly can’t miss when they’re in Brussels: Pierre Marcolini – situated in the idyllic upper middle class cobbled town square of Place du Grand Sablon, with a small church to one corner and ancient fountain in the middle of the square. Cafes and small shops lined the sides, with people sipping their freshly brewed coffee in the sunshine. Now if anyone has read Joanne Harris’ ‘The Lollipop Shoes’, you’ll know what I mean when I say THIS is the village where Vienne had her first shop! It’s here that my day really begins, with a freshly made hot chocolate, from grated 70% dark chocolate – pure bliss! Now it’s time to track down the next pit stop location, a family run institution now in its third generation, Wittamer. Originally starting out as a ‘modern bakery’ over 100 years ago, they soon turned their creative hands to tarts and later chocolates. And since 1999 have even held a royal warrant to the Belgian Royal Family. Today I try a selection of macarons and their pepper praline (basically a pepper infused chocolate truffle).
Now, suitably filled (for the moment, at least) with chocolate, it’s time for a little wander around the ‘Grande Sablon’ area, to discover the statue of the great Charles Karl Buls – a Flemmish politician and mayor of Brussels in the early 1900’s, and his lovely dog, beautiful Church of our Saint Lady of the Sablon, and of course the opposite to the Grand Sablon – the Petit Sablon – more of a square garden with statues dedicated to many ‘Fountain Counts’ – symbols of resistance against the Spanish tyranny that sparked the Dutch revolt.
Chocolate in large quantities can make one thirsty, so a pub stop at the Mort Subite for a Mort Subite beer was right on cue and resulted in a rendition of the legend of the pub, and of the whole surrounding area. Now that I had tasted my traditional Belgian beer I could get back to the main task, chocolate tasting.
Now, for lovers of beautiful architecture AND chocolate, a meander through The Galeries Royales Saint Hubert; glamorous glazed shopping arcades from the 19th century in the heart of Brussels, is something not to be missed. One main section of this is called the “Galerie de la Reine” or ‘Queens Gallery’ if you don’t speak flemish. It was here I discovered Neuhaus, hailed as the ‘inventor of the “praline”‘, and with an interesting story to tell. Over 150 years ago Jean Neuhaus, an apothecary discovered that coating his medicines in chocolate would mask their bitter and unappealing tastes, and unsurprisingly, as a result, the apothecary went from strength to strength! Then in 1912, after moving on from chocolate-coated medicines, the ‘praline’ was born – any chocolate consisting of a hard shell and a soft filling (traditionally ganache, but also soft caramel). Today you can still find their delectable range of pralines (medicines of sorts) including some following the original recipes ‘Bonbon 13’ and ‘Astrid’. Neuhaus are located on 25 Galerie de la Reine, 1000 Bruxelles.
Time was beginning to run thin as I still needed to check at least one more chocolate shop, after discovering some were closed I stumbled upon Belvas! Hailed as the first gluten-free chocolaterie in Northern Europe (I am sure there is one in England), they are also fair trade, certified Vegan and Organic and produce dairy free options to boot. Not to mention that their factory is also part run on solar power.
My gauge for a good chocolaterie is to try (at least) two products – I’d suggest staples such as a classic dark truffle or praline and a caramel, but I also find infusions and alcohol ones to be effective measures too. Here I duly tried the ‘Brut de Noir’ (70% Fair Trade cocoa) and ‘Carre Caramel’. I would suggest buying a box of both, and you won’t be disappointed!
Now really thin on time, after a quick waffle stop and wander round the centre of Brussels it was time to find a famous statue. After wandering around in a heady fug of chocolate following a miniature map, eventually I found him. A little smaller than expected – the statue I mean – I was expecting a Nelson-esque type statue, on a podium. But no, he was barely as tall as my forearm and tucked away in a tiny little corner down a side street, peeing into a small puddle opposite a pub! I actually had to go in the pub (appropriately named ‘Taverne Manneken Pis’) and ask them where he was. Highly amused, once they’d managed to catch a breath from laughing, they were able to explain I had walked straight passed him!
Needless to say, a bit of a disappointment, the only reason to visit Manneken Pis is in fact the two taverns opposite – if craft beer is your thing, or if you just like awesome atmospheric pubs and good drinks in general, then head to the aforementioned Taverne Manneken Pis, a great cozy tavern with the right ‘neighbourly’ feel to it – despite it being opposite an unusual tourist attraction, and thus a tourist hot spot. You’ll find a good, yet short selection of beers here. If you want more of a variety (and can brace the jam-packed atmosphere) then head across the road to Le Pechenellekelder – a pub with similar historic ‘dustyness’ to it, but with a slightly broader selection of brews, if that’s your game. Both are worth a visit.
After spending far too long in both of these pubs, laughing about how disappointing ‘the little guy’ actually was, it was time to full on leg it for the bus, making it with only 2 minutes to spare!