December 5, 2009
Now that I’m a registered resident of the EU, I figure it’s within my civic duty to visit as many neighboring capitals and charming spots as possible. Given my last-minute nature, the inaugural visit was bound to be close by and relatively short. NB: I vow as I grow to a more mature European inhabitant to become more elaborate in my planning.
Fortunately, Brussels, Belgium’s astoundingly beautiful capital city, was a first stop that did not disappoint! Our one-night adventure happened to fall upon the city’s annual Sinterklaas celebration – December 5th.
Without getting into too much detail (for fear of the ensuing debate and gasps the full explanation will cause), I’ll quickly explain that Sinterklaas is the Dutch and Flemish celebration of Saint Nicholas’ visit from Spain, on horseback and boat, to reward the good children with presents or – and this is where it gets weird – capture the bad ones with the aid of his black faced helpers, Zwarte Piet, and bring them back to Spain in burlap sacks. They also toss cookies and candies at the kids too. When I say toss I really mean chuck at their heads.
So, checking all bias towards odd cultural celebrations aside – I can state that both here in Amsterdam and in Brussels the crowd absolutely loves the Sinterklaas tradition and its hard not to follow along. I was lucky enough to get to experience both locations since Sinterklaas came to Amterdam a few weeks early. I dutifully bought a zwarte piet purple cap and indulged in an Oliebol (fried dough ball).
Back to Brussels — Much to our delight, our hotel, the refurbished and elegantly appointed HOTEL AMIGO, part of the Rocco Forte collection, was smack in the middle of the action, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Place and a mere seven minute walk from the train station.
The gingerbread house hotel was quite a sight, even more so with Christmas wreaths and a massive tree in the foyer. The check-in and concierge were ever so helpful and kindly adapted to my vacillations between poor French, basic Dutch and fluent English without a raised eyebrow.
Our room, a Classic King, was no more than 400 square feet with a comfortable squishy bed and elegant linen coverlet. The signature Olga Polizzi (Rocco Forte’s sister and constant decor guru behind each of his properties) touch was evident through the striped wool throw blanket, striped pillows and the curved headboard.
Alas our room looked right into the wall of another building so we kept our curtains closed and chose instead to focus on the beautiful marble bathroom and its wonderfully heated floors. Every time I experience heated bathroom floors I always marvel and how ingenius they are and how “someday, when I have money”…. I also drew a sumptuous bubble bath with the Rocco Forte bath products which bubbled quite tremendously and enjoyed my view of the bathrooms’ framed drawings and figurines of Belgian’s favorite comic star: TinTin.
The hotel could not have been more helpful with suggestions for my planned culinary tour of the city. My main objective of the trip was to verify that Belgian food was leagues above Dutch. The concierge wisely steered us (and reserved us) at multiple spots, including brunch the following day at fancy spot called Lola, where the waiters were confident their spot was the best in town. It is slightly more formal than we had wanted (we were feeling more brasserie style) but the food was excellent. I’d recommend it for dinner though rather than brunch.
With our plans set, we headed off into the celebratory crowd of Sinterklaas revelers towards the throngs in the Grand Place and the various food and craft stands at the Christmas market. Of course, our first stop – one we were advised by all who have been to Brussels before – was at a street waffle stand.
We opted for a half chocolate and a half creme anglaise. It was perhaps the most delectable thing I have eaten since I have been in the low countries.
Wow – I’m writing that about the waffles being the most delicious thing and realizing its the honest-to-G truth. I may have to head back sooner rather than later….
Happily giddy on sugar, we strolled towards Brussel’s famed GRAND PLACE which is the city ‘s main square with the city’s town hall. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For Christmas, it is splendidly adorned with lights on all the elegant old buildings, a massive Christmas Tree and a life size manger.
Our favorite element though was the evening light show that splayed across the cathedral building timed to the music spun by the host of DJs underneath the eaves. It was quite spectacular.
The show began around 5pm and lasted until 11:30pm. We loved being able to watch it earlier and then return to it on our stroll home from our hours-long dining evening. We also made sure to hit the Christmas Market and indulge in some of its finer offerings – Bratwurst, beer and homemade soaps.
Overall, our less-than-24-hours trip to Brussels was a decadent success. We ate our way happily through the city with high points such as Oysters at the Cain Caillerie (which doesn’t seem to have a website) and chocolate mousse and tiramisu at Cafe Vaudeville. Luckily the Hotel Amgio also has a nice, fully equipped fitness room that was empty but for us on Sunday morning.