The Snow In The Summer Or So-So

Brussels trip (3)

Friday 17 November 2006


There was a good dousing of rain on Thursday night, enough to knock the excess heat and humidity out of the atmosphere. I started by exploring the area around my hotel - the Place du Barricades, and the large and flatly dull Congress Plaza. Between the two is the Place du Liberty, which (as all good squares do) includes a small café. By re-tracing my steps, it became clear that this was the café I'd rolled into in a bit of a funk when I was here four years before. Remarkable coincidences of our time, there.

Brussels is split into High Town, where the Parliament and royal parks are, and Low Town, where the commerce takes place. The boundary is a fairly steep incline, of perhaps 25m, and it's along the top of this hill that tram 92 runs before turning off down the heinously expensive shops of the Avenue Louise. There's a limit to the amount of window shopping I can do, and three tram stops worth of street is just about that limit. Does give me an excuse to stop for a coffee, mind.

Highlight of the morning was the Musee d'Instruments du Musique. As the name suggests, this is a museum of musical instruments, giving examples of folk and orchestral instruments from the past and present. The really clever bit is the way they allow visitors to hear the instruments - everyone is issued with headphones that pick up very low-powered radio transmissions. When you're standing by a piano, you hear a piano. When you're standing by drums, you hear drums. The lower two floors are a bit Late Junction, the upper floors more classically orchestral. Don't bother with the restaurant at the top. I was following a school party round, and it was slightly slower going than I'd like. Two hours to navigate the museum; one could probably complete it in 90 minutes without missing much. €5 for admission, it's worth that and a bit more.

By now, it's 1pm, as I can tell by the playful carillion of the clock on the Mont des Arts. Knocks the Westminster Chimes into a cocked hat; this one has three and four bells playing at once. Thence down to Lower Town to pick up a bag of chips for lunch, and to start the shopping.

Most of the tourist tat shops are on the Rue du Marche aux Herbes, the first significant street (as opposed to back passage) to the north of the Grand Place. The Rue de Bouchers is a narrower street a little further north; this is mostly restaurants, and crosses the covered walkway of the Galaries St-Hubert - lots of chocolate stores and slightly more expensive shops here. The alterna-crowd is catered for in the Galaries Agora, a hundred little market stalls, including at least fifty selling leather jackets.

My plan for the afternoon was to head out to the north-west of the city, and visit the sizable stores at Berchem. That requires tram 82 or 83, routes that take different paths around the city centre, but both intersect at Porte de Hal. Trams are meant to run every quarter-hour; in 35 minutes of waiting, all I saw was two route 83s that were set to turn back half-way there. Not good.

Giving up on this as a bad job, I made for the Rue Neuve, the main city centre shopping street. British readers of a certain age will remember C&A, the Dutch shopping chain that left the UK in 2001 for reasons that were never quite explained. They're still going strong on the near continent, of course, and have some quite remarkable bargains - jumpers for €15, smart casual shirts for €10, a snazzy little bow-tie for €7.50, and an outdoor fleece, complete with matching scarf, for just €12. I was paying €45 for clothes that I couldn't find in the UK for £45. This is why I bought a ten-day case for a five-day trip.

Other highlights included HEMA, a department store along the lines of BHS when it sold most things, including a "grab yourself a coffee and a little sticky bun for €3" offer. I was hoping to spend some little time in the Free Record Store in the Anspach centre, but no. Not only had that shop moved to the neighbouring Centre de Monnaie, but the entire Anspach centre had closed down, awaiting redevelopment. FRS did still provide most of the CDs I was looking for - the new album by Scala, and last year's release by Tina Arena. I was also hoping to pick up the latest Natasha St Pier work, but I'm not paying €20 for something I can order more cheaply online.

Flushed by this success, and by achieving other targets - pick up some biscuits for work, a bundle of Yuletide cards, and a calendar - I wondered if my luck would hold out, so bought a ticket for that day's Euromillions lottery draw. And went in search of the Fort Boyard soundtrack in the used CD shops - that is where my luck finally ran out. Not that I was bothered; that was a highly successful shopping expedition.

Dinner was in a small Italian restaurant on the Rue de Bouchers; it was acceptable, though only just. Good gnocchi, though far too much salt in the sauce, but service was desperately slow, and the staff preferred to stand around gossiping than take my bill. The evening's entertainment was provided by Star Academy, of which more in due course.

Saturday 18 November 2006

This day was planned from some distance out; a day-trip to Antwerp, a city 60km to the north, to meet a long-standing friend. En route to the station, and having been far too caught up in the excitement of Star Academy to review teletext, I checked the lottery results. Three main numbers, both stars. Nice, that'll be an extra €59.10 in my pocket, should pay for my train ticket. And, hey, a €2 coin from Luxembourg! Didn't think they printed any money at all.

So, off the the central station to purchase my ticket. The benefits of schoolboy French here: «Un aller-retour pour Anvers, s'il vous plîit», to which the response was a slightly surprising «six euro huitante, monsieur». Welcome back to the world of public transport run for the public, by the public - one can get anywhere in Belgium over the weekend for €6.80 (£4.50). I can't even get to Lichfield and back for that! The Central Station is an imposing fake-marble edifice on top, but as dull and dingy as Neustraßebahnhof on the platforms. Worse, there's some construction work kicking up a lot of dust on an adjacent platform, and it's a relief when the first train pulls in.

I had quite deliberately planned to take the 9.30 stopper, as my friend was due to arrive from the north just before 11am, and if everything ran to schedule, I'd have about ten minutes to wait. As it turned out, the train was slightly delayed on arrival here, and was held for some time at Mouscron to allow a late-running intercity to overtake. Again, welcome back to the world of public transport run for the public, by the public.

Antwerp is flat, and if you're not a fan of Reubens architecture, there's not a tremendous amount to see there. By wandering around at random, we seemed to come across many columns topped by statues of Neptune. Turns out there's only the one, some way to the south of the city centre, but all roads lead to it.

While taking dinner in a small restaurant in the diamond district near to Antwerp's station, the heavens opened. It was cold enough to require gloves on the short walk back, first time I'd brought those out of my pocket since arrival.

Antwerp station, like Leipzig's, is a terminal station - trains have to reverse out, because they'll end up in the city zoo if they try going forwards. Coming back, I could and did take an intercity train. It was a Belgian intercity, featuring double-decker seating. Some seats below, more seats above; with it being 7pm on a Saturday night, there was ample room upstairs. And the upper deck is far less cramped than the ITV Pendolinus services, further proof that those really are a disaster of design.

In part 4: Sunday and Monday.

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