Anywhere But England
The only New Year’s celebration that I had enjoyed up until this holiday was when I was a teenager with my best friend watching the festivities on television. It was absolutely nothing special, but at least it wasn’t cancelled (Edinburgh 2004), I knew the people I was around and did not get upset over a boy (being told my boyfriend, of the time, had just kissed someone else at the party during the Y2K celebrations).
You should avoid hitting walls of slush in the middle of the road. The car tends to veer off course, ripping the steering wheel out of your hand causing, among other things, death.
So this year I was determined to have a good time and not let anyone else spoil it. My boyfriend, Jon, and I decided that Belgium was the best destination in terms of distance and cost. We booked on lastminute.com, one and a half days before, and jumped in my car and took the ferry from Dover to Calais.
Ferry Good Crossing (see what I‘ve done there?)
The 75 minute ferry crossing passed quicker than I remember when I was younger. I suppose it was helped because I now enjoyed grown-up things like drinking coffee and reading The Guardian. We interrupted this peace and quiet only to peruse the duty free shop. During my younger days, I would have been with the sibs running between floors and onto deck as fast as we could, eating banana chocolate (remember that Jim? I feel sick just thinking about it) and having to “just sit still for five more minutes”.
Turn left, take the E40 to Brussels
I didn’t think Brussels would be that easy to find, but it was exactly that easy. As soon as we’d left the port there were signs pointing us to our destination. So we settled down for a couple of hours of motorway driving, “on the right!“.
Once into Belgium the snow started to fall. A proper snow storm, like I have never seen before. Each snow flake was so big you could have used it as a snowball on it‘s own. It was like driving in heavy fog as well as having polystyrene thrown at the windscreen making you want to flinch, during which time you have to watch out for maniac Belgians screaming past as though it was the clearest day they’d seen.
When overtaking during a snow storm, you should avoid hitting walls of slush in the middle of the road. The car tends to veer off course, ripping the steering wheel out of your hand causing, among other things, death. Luckily I have 2 hands, and the one left holding the wheel kept us alive and steady long enough for me to finish overtaking this particular juggernaut and get to the slow lane. My whole body was tingling from the adrenaline. I have been known to over-exaggerate on occasion but I really thought we were going to die.
We phoned the hotel to ask for directions and got confused tones when we described landmarks in Brussels. Turned out we’d booked a hotel in Leuven, 25 minutes east of Brussels.
We arrived in Brussels in good time, after asking a few people and without the aid of our printed directions which were making no sense, found the road that our hotel was on. Strangley, we couldn’t see a single hotel along the mile long road so we took a closer look at our map. In the index there were 4 other roads in Brussels with the same name! Fabulous. We were getting a little fed up now so phoned the hotel to ask for directions and got confused tones of voice when we started describing landmarks in Brussels. Turned out we’d booked a hotel in a large town, called Leuven, 25 minutes east of where we were at the moment, perhaps we should have followed the faithful directions.
Arriving in Leuven, we had to ask directions a few more times and finally got to our destination. I have a lot of praise for the amount of help everyone was willing to give. They wouldn’t just ‘um’ and ‘ah’ about it, they would actually go and find maps of the area, show us where we were and give detailed directions and sometimes sketches of where we needed to head.
There’s a Holiday in Here Somewhere
On our first full day we explored Leuven and were surprised to find it was a lot larger than we first, pessimistically, thought. The town hall was spectacular, with carved stone all around and the windows were as grand as any church with small white Christmas lights filling each one.
For lunch we got totally sucked in by the menu board sat outside a restaurant, it said “spaghetti and a glass of wine for €10”. We sat down and were presented with the type of menu you’d expect to see in a Gordon Ramsey restaurant. Meats like kangaroo, ostrich, springbok and crocodile to name a few, each meal cost over €20 and we’d only wanted a quick cheap lunch. I chose springbok with chestnut puree and blackcurrant sauce, Jon chose the crocodile. The springbok was very tender and tasted nice, but the things served with it were just too sweet and overpowering. The crocodile was the most disgusting meat I have ever tasted. Jon described it as fishy chicken, which doesn’t sound pleasant and I thought it had an aftertaste of petrol and it makes me feel ill just thinking about it.
After the ‘interesting’ lunch I got my first sip of Glühwein, German hot mulled wine. We were served it by 2 stereotypical looking Belgian women who were selling it, and waffles, from a small wooden chalet in the square. I was hooked and any chance from then on, we stopped at these huts in the freezing cold and tried to warm up.
The day ended in a stylish, young café/bar where we drank more Glühwein and beer, while watching snow fall – well we couldn’t leave while it was snowing, much too dangerous – fortunately for us it didn’t stop until late into the evening.
New Year’s Eve
We took the train into Brussels Nord and attempted to take the tram to somewhere more central, but this proved to be more tricky than expected. The tram map was a mess of different coloured lines with no order to any of it, some of the same coloured lines went in different directions and joined up to make quaduple thick lines. We made our way by foot.
I had been told that Brussels was a boring city, luckily it wasn’t to me. There were miles of high street shops from the station to the main part of the city, but it didn’t have the look of our high streets – obviously it had the usual large brands, but most of it was totally individual. Into the main tourist area it became a little more tacky, but still interesting. There was one small lane (“Petite Rue des Bouchers”) leading off the “Grand Place” that was made up only of Italian and seafood restaurants that all look very similar. Each had a man standing outside trying to entice the passing customers into their establishment. After lunch, we bought our souvenirs of hand made biscuits and chocolates – with some more Glühwein to pass the time.
I had never experienced pain from hot food before
Back in Leuven we needed to find somewhere to have dinner and got worried when we realised everything, including the bars, were shut at 8.30pm. We had to walk around for 45 minutes before we came across a suitable place. There were only 3 places open and the first 2 were fully booked. The final one was a Himalyan and Indian restaurant with only 2 couples in it, the rest was empty which didn’t bode well but we didn’t have much choice. The food turned out to be lovely, but for me it was very, very hot (I had never experienced pain from hot food before). The staff seemed new or temporary and were so slow that we thought they might want people around to see in the New Year. Luckily we escaped about an hour before midnight and went back to the hotel with some beverages and snacks and saw in the New Year with Jools Holland. Dull for some, I’m sure, but I really enjoyed myself that day.
New Year‘s Day
We slept in late and had breakfast in bed, but needed to get out of the hotel to get a tea and coffee as the room didn’t have these facilities. Again, nothing in Leuven was open, so we walked around window shopping until we finally came across a place that looked quite lively and best of all, cosy. Inside it looked like a converted barn with high wooden ceilings and a large fire burning at one end. We sat down by the window and checked the menu. There were pages and pages of beers and Jon set about trying to sample them all. I started off with what sounded gorgeous, but ended up being the most sickly thing I’ve ever drunk; a Baileys hot chocolate. The rest of the day I stuck with the country’s generic lager (Jupiler) and the lager brewed in the town itself (Stella! Our hotel window overlooked the Stella brewery).
I think we both wished we’d found this place earlier in the holiday but I think we made up for it with how much we ate and drank. Definitely a great end to our visit.
Look at the photographs I took in Belgium.