In September 2015, my mom, wife and I embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, with a few days in Belgium and the UK thrown in for good measure. On the itinerary: Wuppertal, Brussels, the Rhine, Germany’s ‘Romantic Road’, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Berlin, London and Cambridge. All in a month’s time.
This is part two of the story, and is about our time in Brussels and Nieuwpoort.
Brussels: Baroque, pedestrian-friendly and very tasty
Having experienced the sights and sounds in and around Wuppertal—including a brilliant western classical music concert featuring Beethoven’s ninth symphony—we hit the road to Brussels to visit my aunt. Of course, before doing any road-hitting, we needed a car. So we visited the friendly neighborhood Hertz car rental company, and discovered that the Volkswagen Passat station wagon we had booked had magically transformed into a larger (and more expensive) Ford Mondeo. Nevertheless, after a bit of a wait during which licenses were scrutinized and credit card information was recorded, we were on our way. I had first shift as driver, and being used to driving on Indian roads, I was terrified. Having to drive a completely new car on the opposite side of the road didn’t help either, and the legendary autobahn—with its 180 kmph drivers—seemed like certain death! Of course, it wasn’t as bad as all that, and once I realized that people by and large stay in their own lanes most of the time, I calmed down and started driving in earnest.
It took us about four hours to get to Brussels, and the built-in GPS (locally called ‘navi’) was a godsend, allowing us to navigate the various highways and through Brussels as well. That’s not to say that we didn’t take a few wrong turns here and there, but it certainly beat using the roadmap or stopping and asking for directions every ten minutes. On the outskirts of Brussels itself, we had a bit of trouble finding my aunt’s place, which taught us a few things: (a) The GPS isn’t always reliable, and (b) the locals don’t always speak a language you understand. It turns out, half the locals in Brussels speak French, and the other half speak Flemish, and speakers of either language don’t necessarily speak the other. But find my aunt’s place we did: a charming little house with a wild, multi-acre garden complete with apple trees, a pond, a shy Dalmatian and—for some reason—a disturbing metal sculpture of Medusa!
On our second day there, we decided to go into town and see the city proper. A friend of my aunt’s very kindly volunteered to drive us into the city and be our guide for the day. Brussels turned out to be a very interesting city indeed. One of the nicest things in the city is the huge Boulevard Anspach—a pedestrian zone since 2015—that runs right through the center, with cafés and shops along the sides, and permanent table tennis and chess tables in the middle. Our guide told us, though, that turning the boulevard into a pedestrian zone involved evicting many homeless people who lived there, and that tensions from this still boiled over sometimes. We saw evidence of this firsthand, as a belligerent homeless woman and a man playing chess at one of the tables almost came to blows as we walked by.
From Boulevard Anspach, we strolled over to the Grand Place (pronounced ‘grawn plass’), the central square occupied by the town hall—which we at first mistook to be a gothic cathedral—and bordered by lots of gorgeously baroque buildings trimmed in gold and stucco. After some time at the Grand Place admiring the town hall quadrangle, a bronze statue of a reclining saint seemingly floating in mid-air, and a few stalls selling exotic flowering plants, we headed to arguably the most famous icon of Brussels: the Manneken Pis. Up close, this bronze fountain of a little boy relieving himself was unexpectedly small, but interesting and unusual nevertheless. The nearby chocolatiers seemed to want to make up for the fountain’s size, though, by creating six-foot replicas out of chocolate and standing them in their display windows! And while the infinite varieties of chocolate were tempting, the smell of fresh waffles was almost irresistible. The only thing holding us back was our host’s assurance that the waffles at Nieuwpoort—a beach town we were visiting the next day—were much better. So we bid adieu to the strange fountain, and headed to the Rue des Bouchers, the famous ‘restaurant alley’ of Brussels.
In the alley, we settled on a little Spanish restaurant, and were surprised to find that our Middle-eastern waiter could speak a smattering of Hindi, picked up from an Indian friend! Pleasantly surprised though we were, we were also ravenous, so we ordered the appropriately-Spanish paella (a dish of seafood and rice cooked together). While I must admit the seafood paella looked delicious, the vegetarian version that I ordered for myself was nothing to write home about.
Nieuwpoort: Endless beaches and incredible waffles
The next day, my wife and I, accompanied by my aunt’s friend, his wife and their two Chihuahua mixes, piled into our rented car and drove the two hours to Nieuwpoort. Most tourists visit Ostende, a little further up the coast, for the Belgian beach experience, but we were assured that Nieuwpoort was every bit as nice, and much less touristy. So that is where we went. It turned out to be a nice little beach town, with a long, clean beach lined with cafés and high-end apartment buildings. Despite it being a bright and sunny day with a nice cool breeze blowing, the beach was almost empty, and we took long, leisurely walks completely undisturbed. The highlight of our visit, though, was a brunch of steaming fresh waffles at one of the cafés, covered with bananas, strawberries, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.
After stuffing our faces, we were quite sure we would never need to eat again. But the walks along the beach, the neighboring pier, and the beachfront boulevard made our appetites appear again. After a short search (and a stop to listen to a street performer with an old-fashioned wind-up organ) we found an open-air table at a café and were served with huge bowls of steamed mussels—the local speciality—and a massive serving of French fries (or pommes frites, or chips, or whatever else you’d like to call them). And by ‘we’, I mean my wife and our companions. I ordered something vegetarian, of course, but I don’t even remember what it was, so it must have been spectacularly boring! We finished with a dessert that was nowhere near as good as the morning’s waffles, and headed back to Brussels, tired and happy.
- The GPS or ‘navi’ in your rental car will take some getting used to, will not necessarily be accurate, will sometimes tell you to turn when there isn’t one, and sometimes tell you to keep going when you actually need to branch off. Keeping an eye on direction signs will help you stay on the right track.
- The roads in Brussels, especially near the city center, can be quite confusing. Taking public transport or a taxi might be better than driving yourself, if you want to see the sights.
- It might be a good idea to take a list of common phrases in French and Flemish along while sightseeing, just in case.
- Because the Grand Place is the center of tourist activity in Brussels, everything within walking distance of it is expensive—including the Rue des Bouchers. For a less formal—and cheaper—but no less satisfying bite, try the nearby Rue du Marché aux Fromages (affectionately called ‘Rue des Pittas’) that is lined with stalls selling pita bread stuffed with an infinite variety of fresh fillings.
- If you love waffles, take every opportunity to stuff yourself with them. Belgian waffles are among the best you’ll ever eat, so you if you haven’t overdosed on them, you’ll probably regret it later.
- When at the beach in Nieuwpoort, factor in an early lunch. Most places along the beachfront boulevard close by 2:00 PM. And, unlike most places in Europe, the beach is usually off limits to dogs, so you might need to make other arrangements for your pooch.