When every other shop sells chocolate or beer, cold wind gusts through gilded houses, Tintin is still the local hero and people gorge on mussels, I know I am in Brussels.
In a crowded metro, I’m on my way to Stokkel station. And from there, I will go — nowhere. “The station has a surprise,” a souvenir seller has told me.
The train stops, and as I step on the platform, my eyes almost pop out. The walls of the station have two magnificent cartoon murals. All 140 characters from the Tintin comics have come alive in this otherwise nondescript metro station. And guess who did the sketches for these murals? Hergé himself, days before he died.
Almost any flat wall in Brussels is a canvas for cartoons. There’s Tintin, Captain Haddock, Lucky Luke, Blondie and Blinke, and others. The Belgian Comic Strip Centre on Rue des Sables is The Louvre of cartoons. It traces the history of comics, and shows background materials and raw sketches underlining the painstaking efforts that go into creating these moments of laughter.
Climbing down to the museum’s first floor in the cold afternoon, I see a little girl and her mother, both sitting on the floor of the bookshop, untouched by noise and crowd, glued to a shelf-full of cute cartoon mementos.
I remember, once a beautiful woman told me, “Oh dear, there’s no age for love, comics and chocolates.” (She, however, gave none to me).
It’s difficult to find bad chocolates in Brussels. So, for once, I go for price tags, and that leads me inside a Pierre Marcolini store in the city’s fanciest shopping arcade: Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries.
I am so awestruck by the variety (and the prices) that when the storekeeper comes up, smiling, I say, “I have come here,” then after a pause, “to buy chocolates!”
“Sure, sir. This is the chocolate store in Bruxelles!”
Marcolini’s closest competitor, Neuhaus, left my wife Ruchira disappointed. She loves chocolates so much that if there’s a choice between me and a luxury chocolate bar, she might opt for the latter. Nowadays, she is going sugar-free but Neuhaus chefs haven’t yet arrived at a killing formula that doesn’t involve sugar. Her search ends at Marcolini.
Even after spending 100 euros for just three packs of chocolate, we are not done. More chocolates enter our bags from almost every street near Grand Place. So much so, that at the European Union Parliament, I ask a grumpy security guard if there’s a chocolate store somewhere inside.
The cost of a bomb
“Do you guys love fish?” Midi, the super-efficient receptionist of Hotel Agora asks. He gets a joyous answer and directs me to a street-side joint, Mer du Nord (the North Sea). “It serves only fish,” Midi says.
I rush out of the hotel. After walking for 15 minutes I find it’s their weekly off. Next day, I arrive late and miss it again. I am lucky on the third attempt. I order fried prawn, mussels and a grilled salmon. The picks are fresh and they don’t pinch my pocket.
This lovely city was a hotspot of tourism. And then, last March, bombs blasted through its airport and the busy Maalbeek metro station. Seven months later, Rue des Bouchers, the narrow lane full of restaurants, has a few customers this afternoon. As I walk through the lane, managers come forward with menu cards and discounts — like cabbies outside New Delhi railway station — to lure me in.
The marvellous Grand Place — that looks like paradise when lit up in the evening — is bereft of the usual crowd. At metro stations, synagogues, and the airport, there are hawk-eyed armed police patrolling 24x7.
The added security in no way diminishes the beauty of Brussels. A modern tram takes me to the museum hub of the city. But because I had an overdose of art and history in Italy, no museum in Brussels will see my face. Happily spotting important landmarks, I realise that we are on a ‘wrong road’ — at least that’s what the guidebook says.
Ale and hearty
Unknown paths often impress visitors. This one too, was no exception. Down the slope in front lies a beautiful garden. The road slides further. There, the city of Brussels, complete with the spire of the town hall, offers its most beautiful landscape.
It’s not just the two Indians stopping to stare. Office hours are just over. Many homebound people also stop for a few seconds to soak in the sublime scene. We are tourists, so we will take another road. Rue des Minimes offers the vintage charm of Brussels. Houses with gabled facades, cobbled streets, neighbourhood art galleries — it’s the perfect area to wander while the temperature dips.
As the magical light of dusk spreads in the sky, I am awakened to the fact — at a beer shop — that it’s perfectly legal to drink on the streets
Belgium produces 1,150 types of beer, and each one is served in its own, branded glass. (In my initial days in New Delhi, I had seen The Press Club of India serving whiskey, rum, vodka and beer — everything in the same glass.)
I have been ordering beer at restaurants only during lunch and dinner. It was economical, too. A water bottle is priced 10 euros in some restaurants but the best beer will be just 5. I flirt with 20 types of beer before I meet Joseph, the maverick guide at the Citadel of Dinant. High above the ground, standing in an open space with rusty cannons nearby, the old man asks me in a serious tone: “What beers did you taste, young man?”
With other members of the citadel tour group gazing at me, I murmur, “Chimay, Lambic, Orval, Leffe…”“Oh, please!” Joseph thunders.
And then, as if talking to the clouds, he announces, “There’s only one beer in Belgium. Rochefort 8. The rest is just water.”
Follow SaubhadraC on Twitter
From HT Brunch, January 1, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch