The Fernweh-farer: Waffling, Wandering and Staying Awhile in Brussels

Updated: Feb 24, 2020

Full transparency, I have restarted this rumination on my time in Brussels more than once. I am not entirely sure why I am so challenged in placing finishing touches to a narrative around a place I found so easily engrossing? Perhaps it is out of some allegiance to the city and residents who made the visit memorable? Possibly some desire to paint her in a light that sells the average traveler on what makes this city of two-million people a not-so-average destination.

When I listed off upcoming places awaiting an itinerary of European destinations, the Belgian capital would inevitably elicit either a non-verbal reaction of confusion from acquaintances or a more direct:

“Brussels, why?”    

At the heart of this ill-conceived perception is a rooted assumption of a city mired in poor weather, populated by people devoid of social complexity and a culture that is boring at best. After spending a week in the heart of Brussels, I am convinced these characterizations are all part of a plot perpetuated by the tourism boards of bordering countries to keep the delights of Belgium a competitive secret.

Arriving at Brussels Airport is a stark reminder of the resiliency and importance the city plays as a geopolitical hub of Europe. In 2016, terrorist suicide bombers targeted the departures terminal of the main airport and one of the city’s most crowded train stations. The result was a loss of thirty-five lives (including the three perpetrators) and an ensuing period of fear and anxiety at the thought of additional targeting.

Animals and humans caught in the act...a recurring theme of Brussels bronze work

The terminal is now setup to restrict drive-up proximity and up-armored guards stand sentry alongside travelers grabbing their lattes at busy coffee kiosks. Thankfully, the efforts of local law enforcement and alert citizens has resulted in no further conflict on this scale.  

The city’s status as home of the European Union (EU) headquarters likely plays into the misguided reputation as a bureaucratic hub of a destination with less-than-interesting offerings. More often, one can safely apply a global view that suited government officials are not the best casual “hang.” However, one should recall that Brussels has a history and heritage that far predates the selection as EU HQ. A distinction Brussels never wanted in the first place (more on that interesting process later).

A result is that many see Brussels as a “stopover” destination. More likely to garner a night’s stay at the adjoining hotels at the airport rather than venturing into the city. That would be a big mistake.

Compelling street art and welcoming locals define Brussels

The Belgian train system goes straight from the airport to the city center via the Airport-Zaventem line, and it offers comfort and the affordable cost of 10-12 Euro. My feelings on this are clear - a straightforward public transit option lacking complexity should be the first infrastructure requirement of any city that wishes to be taken seriously as a destination. A clean, safe and direct line from the airport creates a first impression that indelibly stays with any visitor. The comfortable ride takes only fifteen minutes to go from throwing elbows at baggage-claim to sipping a strong Belgian beer.

I rode one stop south of the Brussel-Centraal station to the somehow more energized Bruxelles-Midi station - buzzing like an anthill that just got kicked over. Having frequented many cavernous train station hubs, I can attest the Midi station is right up there with more boggling ones. For all the blessings (and negative side effects) Google Maps has bestowed on our culture, two key directional features elude it: guiding a new arrival on which surface exit to take out of a transit station and how to navigate above, or below, street level. I’m still sore about not finding that killer ramen shop on the sixth floor of a Tokyo high-rise. I nitpick.  

Orienting my bearings, I emerged from the station to…rain. Faced with the decision to hail a ride or brave the drops to my Airbnb roughly a 10-minute walk away, I chose the latter. Perhaps my years of living in the Pacific Northwest have desensitized me to anything less than a vision reducing downpour, but this strategy worked to my advantage as shortly after escaping the shelter of the station the rain subsided. This would be a recurring pattern of my time in Brussels. Don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.

I setup in a great little artist walk-up in the Anneessens neighborhood of the city.  The energy pulsing through the neighborhood and the grungy realness immediately appealed to me. The area caters to an ethnically diverse group and seems more socioeconomically approachable than perhaps more affluent areas of the city. While one can rabbit-hole online to find flashlight-under-the-covers horror stories about any part of town, I never felt uncomfortable in the area and it served as a great jumping off point to walk the city. (note that I am a single male with a lot of solo travel under my belt, so please conduct your own research and determine your own comfort-level before selecting a home base for your visit).

My arrival was at dusk, so I trekked down the street to a local market stall and fruit stand to pick up basic provisions. The flat was simply decorated but expansive and delightful. Large street side windows that stretched floor to ceiling, letting in an abundance of natural light. The host was a local artist, and several eccentric modern pieces dotted the room. During an initial chat upon check-in, they recruited me to help load a heavy new piece into the second level they called home. The welcome interaction that only a homestay can drop into your lap. Fine with me, an exertion to serve as an excuse for rewarding with a dense Trappist beer I grabbed while slipping down the aisles of the corner store.

The first morning met with my first goal, finding a reliable source of quality roasted coffee. While I love exploring a variety of unique coffee stops in any new city, I also like to have a go-to that is open early in the mornings to satiate my all-too-often jet lagged cravings. OR Coffee was that go-to.  

A cappuccino at OR Coffee with the requisite chocolate square

Two people deep in line, I was preparing myself for my time to order. The initial service industry interaction in any unfamiliar city is both awesomely anxious and energizing. My mind raced through those four years of high school French, only polished off during my last trip through Paris a few years before. The area in and around Brussels is an island of primarily French-speaking residents amongst the northern Dutch-Flemish speaking, so I was fully expecting a somewhat surly interaction allowing me to nail some attempt at parler Français.  

Un cappuccino s’il vous plaît.” Was I audibly muttering? Was I frightening the person in line behind me? Who can be sure, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice for this important sign of statesmanship I was about to kick-off. I was ready.

How may I help you?” the barista inquired.  

Saved once again by another country’s willingness to do the heavy lifting as it relates to accomplished bilingualism.   

Grabbing a seat at one of the street-facing windows, I tucked into a well-pulled cappuccino. The flawless balance of creamy foam topping an undercurrent of darkly tanned espresso that jettisoned any hint of bitterness. A square of 72% dark chocolate accompanied cutting board serving as a place setting for my beverage. This was a theme during my entire stay in Brussels, and one that really needs to catch on elsewhere - the coffee accoutrements. Over the course of a week I enjoyed gratis chocolate, mini-stroopwafels and scented Speculoos bites. Each paired intentionally based on the roast or drink type.

The Ric Hochet mural seamlessly blends into the neighboring facade

While waiting in line to order my drink, the homemade pastel de nata tempted me and beckoned from the display case. Exploring Portugal has instilled a permanent soft spot the traditional egg tart, but on this day it would better serve my carb allocation to await the delicacies of Belgium - namely, the waffle. 

Gathering up my gear, I stepped out to…rain. Brussels, work with me here. Faced with an increasingly vocal stomach ready for some breakfast, I had to decide if I should brave the elements and march on? Do they close waffle shops when it rains? Two questions I already knew the answer too. Carry on to hot-pressed heaven!

It may seem cliche, but waffles are unavoidable in the city. The smell drifts from shops on roughly every other block, threatening to lift you off your feet and float you into the storefront in cartoonish style. The treat is an accepted and proud culinary institution. This runs counter to some destinations where popular “tourist fare” is not local in any way - looking at you damn delicious “Czech” chimney cakes!

The ubiquity of waffle-slinging storefronts results in a need to practice scrupulousness when picking your spot. I am the first to question those “highly recommended” must-try lists and well-trodden spots of guidebook fame. However, Maison Dondoy always frequents these lists, and is mandatory for a fix.  

Perfectly dusted Brussels waffle at Maison Dondoy

Attention please, valuable navigation tips for the waffle grid incoming. There are two types of waffles found in the city: the Liege and the Brussels styles. While the Brussels variation is light and yeast-based, the Liege is more dense with miraculously embedded large sugar crystals that survive the heat just long enough to offer a perfectly grainy reward in each bite. Both have their place in the Belgian waffle landscape.

Maison Dondoy excels at the Brussels style. Light as a cloud and snowcap dusted with powdered sugar, the airy grid will leave you wanting a bit more. Because Maison Dondoy offers more than just waffles, this is good news. While standing at the old wooden bar awaiting your order, plant a firm left heel and turn around one hundred-eighty degrees. Feast your eyes upon the glass-encased bake goods that count among their residents the Sablé and the Speculoos cookie. The former is a crumbly shortbread that coats the mouth with the distinct essence of freshly churned butter. The latter is a crunchy brown sugar cookie with “came-to-play” infusions of cloves and cinnamon. Forget what you think you know about Speculoos from airline snack offerings or Trader Joe’s wizardry. This is gourmet. This is high art.

Cookie is the question, and Speculoos is the answer

Picking up a delicately packaged set of each for a week’s worth of morning coffee enhancements, I set back out on the cobblestone streets a happy man. Still early in the day, my goal was to check-off one of the most referenced attractions in the city that I fully expected to underwhelm - Manneken Pis. Sound it out, take it literally and it removes any double of what will present itself when you round the corner to its home at the intersection of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chêne. A two-foot high statue of a wee lad, well….taking a wee. The diminutive statue has a storied history of theft that any local Belgian will be more than happy to regale you with over a beer. Stolen by countries in manners that would make fraternities proud, hundreds of costume changes to match holidays and even variations of the fluids that sprinkle the basin below. I can add not much else to the description. It is the Mona Lisa of peeing statues in that hoards of people surround a centerpiece that is smaller than the hype would have suggested. (Note: in this writer’s opinion, da Vinci beats pissing boy)

Mannekin Pis on full display

Advise worth heeding, if you pass a shop with a replica Manneken Pis showering chocolate into a basin of Belgian waffles adorned with more toppings than dough…this is not the waffle shop you are looking for. Crushed Oreos do not belong on a well-crafted Brussels waffle.

One of Belgium’s key creative contributions of the twentieth Century are comic series like The Adventures of Tintin and The Smurfs. So, my goal on many days was to set out on foot across the city to uncover as many cartoon murals as possible. The murals are a nod to that history and are slyly positioned across building facades in the city. Believed to number around fifty, these playful recreations of iconic scenes make for a great way to see the city and scratch that proverbial human desire to build a list and “check off” items.  

Frank Pé's Broussaille mural