Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Brussels

When talking of touristic European Capitals, Brussels isn’t necessarily one of the first that comes to mind. Less majestic than Paris, less buzzing than Madrid, less Catholic than Rome. Added of course to the unpredictable weather. I was informed when I arrived that “in Brussels it is sunny several times a day”. 

Granted, there is less to see than in Paris or London. However, I found Brussels held some real gems that would make it a perfect destination for long weekend or a few days visit. I really fell in love with the place in the time I was there. Only a train ride away from London, so no baggage allowance – something that will be appreciated by anyone who has travelled with ... some of the less expensive airlines. So, what would I suggest...?

 The Grande Place
No point saving the best till last. The Grand Place is the breath-taking central square of Brussels, a large cobbled square surrounded by beautiful gold-gilded Guild Houses. Each building has a story of its own as they date back to the old guilds of bakers, ship-makers, and textiles. During the day it is beautiful but at night when it is all lit up, this place is my favourite place to be. It is also surrounded with quaint little streets where you will find a whole range of restaurants and shops.

 Manneken Pis
A statue of a little boy having a wee. This is one of Brussels most famous monuments, and supposedly symbolic of Belgium. Certainly it is symbolic of the Belgians' sense of humour. You will find it down Stoofstraat, a small street off the Grande Place, surrounded by a crowd of excited tourists and probably sporting one of its famous costumes, if you are there on a weekend. So, to put your mind at rest, if you pass a lot of shops selling figures of naked little boys, fear not.  You could even take a souvenir chocolate figurine home for your parents.

Capital of Europe...?
Although the French would beg to differ, Brussels does have a sense of being the capital of Europe. The mix of languages and cultures wherever you go is testament to this. An entire region of bourgeoisie Belgian houses were swept away to make way for the immense European Quarter near the city centre. The European Parliament building is an entire world unto itself, complete with restaurants, hairdressers, post office and even a train station underneath. You can walk through the grounds and get a good view in  from the outside, and from Place de Luxembourg you have an impressive view of the whole Parliament. Also of interest in Place de Luxembourg are two remains from the Berlin wall, which stand intact to one side of the square.

Parc du Cinquantenaire/ Jubelpark
Once you have journeyed as far as the European Quarter, it is not much further to walk to Parc de Cinquantenaire. This is a beautiful park to walk in and is dominated by two enormous museums, joined by an “Arch de Triomphe” inspired Arch. Entry to the Military museum, on the left, is free, and from there you can gain access to the roof of the arch, where you get a view of the whole European Quarter, and out to the East of Brussels. This arch originally marked the entrance to the city. Also in the military is a large aerodrome full of aircraft from both world wars, amongst others – definitely worth visiting if you are interested in aircraft.

The Giant Atom
On my first day in Brussels, I was pointed out proudly by a Belgian: the Atonium. Shocked when I failed to react, she explained that this was “the Eiffel Tower of Brussels”. The population of Brussels are convinced that this structure is as world famous as the Eiffel Tower. However, even if it is not recognised by the world at large, this giant metallic structure, built in the form of an atom, is truly impressive. Although in my opinion it is a lot more impressive viewed from the outside, you may pay to go inside and access the different spheres via a series of escalators along the connecting arms.

I was amazed by the turbulent history that Belgium has, reflected in the ongoing linguistic struggle today between the French regions and the Flemish regions. Belgium only became a country in 1830, a seemingly short existence for the country that now houses (part of) the European Union. The Royal Palace is not spectacular inside, and only worth visiting over the summer months when it is free entry. However, to its right, there is a brilliant museum called Belvue Museum, which recounts the entire, if short, history of Belgium and Brussels.

Eat waffles! They are delicious. Chocolate sauce. Mmmm.

Belgian Chocolate
It's famous. There's lots of it. The truffles are amazing. If you fancy a particularly fancy chocolate shop, visit Marcolini Sablon in Place du Grande Sablon. There the chocolate is displayed and packaged like jewellery.

Belgian has a great selection of its own beers and ciders which are worth a taste. Even if you are not usually fond of beer, there are some delicious fruity varieties. Kriek, the cherry flavour beer, is a popular choice.

Palais de Justice

The Belgian Courts of Justice are the largest in the world. They were built purposely bigger than the royal palace, as a symbol that the law is more important even than the King. However, they are hugely impractical due to the costs of electricity and the security risks, and are therefore used less and less. You can go in as far as the forecourt and practically feel the tangible power prestige of the law.

Rooftop Restaurant
While the GrandeMusée des Instruments is another personal favourite. This may seem strange when I confess that I have never once been round the museum. However, you can take the lift directly to the 10th floor for free and there you find a rooftop restaurant overlooking the whole of Brussels. It is shut in the evening, so if you would like to eat out there, it will have to be lunch. A lovely place to start the day with a morning coffee. I took every single visitor here when they came to Brussels.

If you are a fan of Art Nouveau, Brussels is bursting with its influence. Frescos, beautiful window frames and doorways, and some spectacular Art Nouveau Houses. The beautiful house of Albert Horta, a famous Art Nouveau architect, is now a museum open to visitors, although make sure you check the opening times before going. The other road worth a visit is Rue Defacqz / Defacqzstraat, which has several beautiful art Nouveau Houses.

Something else I enjoyed about Brussels architecture was the variety. In Brussels, each family built their own house, and due to lack of space, this means they are on average 4 or 5 storeys high, despite only one room wide. The resulting effect is a patchwork of different houses all glued side by side, each made of a unique design and height and generally each using different bricks than their neighbours.

Further abroad
Once you have seen the sights of Brussels, it is only an hour train journey to the well-known town of Bruges, which is one of Belgiums treasures. Often a honeymoon destination, this town offers endless quaint streets and buildings. I warn you though. Take an umbrella. And some waterproof shoes. I spent an entire day walking around Bruges with wet feet, which did dampen my mood somewhat. Weather in Belgium is always hard to predict.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Tourist Tips on visiting Paris

A friend of mine has recently visited Paris and asked me for some tips on what to see, which took me back to all the things I did when I lived there. There are so many wonderful things to do in Paris, it would be impossible to list them all, but here are a few ideas to get you started. Let me recommend it as a very romantic destination!

Amazing views across Paris

You have several excellent options for some spectacular views over Paris. The most obvious is of course to go up the Eiffel Tower, which naturally is very well worth a visit. However, this is expensive and crammed with tourists and the downside is that you miss the most iconic point in the Parisian horizon - the Eiffel Tower itself!! So my advice would be to get the metro to Montparnasse and pay to go up the Tour de Montparnasse. This skyscraper is a gigantic office block monstrosity, but it has an open rooftop from which you get a wonderful view of Paris including the Eiffel Tower and NOT including the Montparnasse Tower - a definite bonus!

The Arc de Triomphe is not only a spectacular and iconic monument, but also boasts a very impressive view from the top, as the streets fan out from it in a star shape. My suggestion would be to go up at night when the city lights disappearing off in all directions are breath-taking, and if you go on the hour you get a perfect view of the Eiffel tower sparkling as it does for about 5 minutes every hour.

Sunset on the Steps of Sacre Coeur

The views from outside Sacre Coeur are also stunning - with the added bonus that they are free. One of my favourite things to do was to buy a crepe and sit on the steps of Sacre Coeur looking over the whole of Paris as the sun sets. Pretty romantic.

Boat trip along the Seine

A boat trip along the Seine is well worth the money. You get a unique Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel tower and many other magnificent buildings as you speed along the water. Look out for the barges of all the rich people who live on their boats, which are moored up along the banks. 

The Latin Quarter

For going out, bars, restaurants etc, the Latin Quarter is the place to go [metro St Michel]. Its just south of the river near Notre Dame and its the student area so it has a real buzz and a bit less pricey. It is a great place to wander through in the evening.
Time for Tea

If you fancy splashing out, why not pay an afternoon visit to "Angelina", possibly the most prestigious tea room in Paris. It is next to the Tuilleries Gardens, and their famous delicacy is the "Mont Blanc" cake. It is delicious!

Alternately, the Tuilleries Gardens, which are a lovely place to spend an afternoon, offer some lovely little coffee shops where you can sit under the shade of the trees and watch the world go by.

French Fashion

Les Galleries Lafayette is the most prestigious department store in Paris, and it truly beautiful inside.

If you are looking for jewels... and for a look at where I am reliably informed Lady Diana was last filmed leaving the Ritz ...there is a lovely square full of designer jewellers called Place Vendome. Walking from there along past the Tuilleries Gardens is the Rue de Rivoli, where you will fine Louis Vuiton and Dolce & Gabana among some of their other designer friends.

For slightly more affordable shopping, if you plan to pick up some cheaper souvenirs, Les Halles and all its surrounding streets going towards the Pompidou Centre are a great area for all sorts of shops.

Parisian Piquenique

And if you want to experience a bit of true Parisian culture, the young people in Paris often picnic on summer evenings on Pont des Arts, the pedestrian bridge across the Seine crossing over from the Louvre. Take a baguette, some wine and some smelly French cheese and join the fun. The view from that bridge looking downstream is actually my favourite view in the whole of Paris. 

Culture Galore

There are numerous brilliant museums and galleries worth a visit. For a gander at the disappointingly small, but enormously famous Mona Lisa, who definitely does not smile for photos, try navigating your way through the vast and impressive Louvre. My favourite part of the Louvre is actually the centre courtyard with the controversial contrast of ancient and modern architecture. 

For modern art the Pompidou Centre is fantastic, and the Musée d'Orsay also has a brilliant art collection, housed in a former railway station. For a spectacular circular room full of all the Monet lilies you could dream of, visit the Musée de l'Orangerie, found in the Tuilleries Gardens. 

And the good news is that entry is free for under 25's... so hurry if you are still young enough.

                                       If you are a fan of stained glass...

Notre Dame is, of course, spectacular inside. However, my favourite church to enter is the lesser known Sainte Chapelle, located on the same island as Notre Dame, just 5 minutes walk away. This chapel is on two levels, and as you enter the upper chapel, built as the King's private chapel, you are encircled by an immense array of stained glass windows, covering every wall. The Chapel has the most stained glass windows of any church in the world. Deep blues and purples and greens. Full of different stories from the Bible, if you can work out which they are each meant to represent. It is stunning.

Now, a word of warning for those who are harder to impress. When showing one of my friends round Paris, I decided to start with a flourish by taking her directly to the Eiffel Tower. We came out of the metro station, we walked down the steps, we reached the river, we crossed to the middle of the bridge and there before us stood one of the most iconic structures in the world. Her response? 

"Oh, well, that's disappointing. It's not very impressive is it."

Fear not. By the end of three days she left Paris won over by all its charms.