She Said, She Said: Brussels
By Geri Bain and Jenny Keroack
Inspired by the grand tours of aristocrats past and the much more recent adventures of TV’s Gilmore Girls, 18 year old Jenny Keroack proposed that she and her mom, travel writer Geri Bain take their own grand voyage. This summer, she and her mother, travel writer Geri Bain, set off together to see as much of the Old World as thirty days would allow. Starting in London and finishing in Barcelona, they recorded their favorite places and activities. Jenny’s are in italics while Geri’s are in regular type. Read about their adventures, explorations and all the schleps in between. The following is their report logged from Brussels.
The Eurostar whisked us from London directly to center city Brussels in about three hours with no security, no early check in, no hassle—definitely beats flying! Chocolate would have been reason enough for us to come to Brussels. But we were also curious about a city whose most beloved monument is a small statue of a nude boy peeing into a fountain. We discovered that the seat of the European Union has a wry sense of humor and a strong sense of pride.
A design hotel: The Dominican, just a few blocks from the Grand-Place, was within walking distance of the train station and pretty much everywhere we wanted to go. From its 19th century façade, preserved from the days when French painter Jacques-Louis David lived here, to its modern interpretation of the site’s heritage as a 15th century abbey, The Dominican artfully interweaves old and new. Soaring ceilings, full-length windows opening onto an outdoor courtyard, and muted décor with fireplaces and wrought iron accents create a sophisticated ambience for its lounge, an intimate gathering place for locals as well as guests. And after a long day of touring, we loved returning to the hotel’s intimate lobby as well as our stylized room, comforts only a boutique hotel can offer.
Chocolate Tasting: You can’t walk more than a few blocks in Brussels without being tempted by original handmade masterpieces of chocolate. At Pierre Marcolini, for example, individual tasty morsels are displayed in glass showcases like priceless jewels. We were lucky enough to experience a tasting/workshop with chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud. Several years spent working in China inspired Gerbaud to create intense flavors by combining high quality chocolate with surprising ingredients such as kumquats, Persian cranberries, citrus fruits, and, my favorite, ginger. After learning to distinguish between the flavors of chocolates made with Laurent’s carefully-sourced Criollo, Trinitario, and Nacional beans and sampling some of his powerfully rich blends, we had the hands-on thrill of working in his kitchen.
The Palais des Beaux Arts: This is one of those places where a quick visit just isn’t enough. With its huge rotunda entrance hall, complete with high ceilings and white walls, the Palais des Beaux-Arts was one of many buildings commissioned in the 19th century by King Leopold II, nicknamed “the builder king.” Our tour guide said that Belgians generally avoid this kind of symmetrical, unified architecture, but I found it breathtaking. The building is part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts complex, which houses impressive collections of ancient and modern art and contains the kind of classical masterpieces you’d imagine in such a building: marble sculptures of nymphs, paintings by Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens and intriguing works such as Brueghel’s “Fall of the Icarus,” which was interpreted in the poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” by W.H. Auden.
A Surreal Delight: Jenny and I have developed an appreciation for the deep insights that come from spending time in a one-artist museum so we made a point of visiting the Magritte Museum, located right next to the Palais des Beaux Arts. The building houses the largest collection of Magritte’s works the world. Although some of his famous works are not on display here, the museum, especially when toured with the audio guide, opens a window onto his life and era. I have long been a fan but was amazed at the range of his work on display, which includes oils, sculptures, gouaches, drawings, music and films. There’s also a collection of advertising posters, which he called his “imbecile works” because he did them for money, not art. However, even in these, his surrealist sensibilities are evident. I most enjoyed seeing his works presented decade by decade, interwoven with quotes and information about his life, current events, and the artists who influenced him.
Dining Belgian-style. Belgians definitely take pride in their food, and with good reason, their cuisine is a unique mixture that could only be found in the place that has been occupied by almost every European power. My favorite snack is the food that bears the city name, Brussels waffles. These are not your mother’s waffles. Thick, almost like bread, and sweet, they are sold warm and topped with sugar and often chocolate or fruit. The waffles are definitely worth a try for anyone not on a diet. However, Brussels has much more to offer than just dessert. The quaint restaurants in the fish market area, which line a quiet canal, are the place for fresh seafood. And for authentic, artistically presented and locally-sourced Belgian dishes, I’d recommend the Belga Queen, which set in an 18th century landmark building.
Shopping New Street: I think the best part of shopping in another country is when someone back home asks you where you got something unusual and you get to say you ‘picked it up’ in some romantic far-off land. In Brussels, the best place to find some such items for us was Rue Neuve, a pedestrian street where my mom and I discovered some very cute stores in addition to popular European brands such as Mango and Esprit. In the middle of this busy shopping area, a great place to take a break is the Church of Notre-Dame du Finistère, which has free organ concerts every Monday and a beautifully carved 18th century wooden altarpiece.
Next: We head to medieval Bruges, just an hour away by train. She Said
Jenny Keroack (left) and Geri Bain
Geri Bain, a widely published travel writer and editor, has written about more than 60 countries and contributed to publications including inc.com, N.Y. Daily News and Robb Report. While travel editor at Modern Bride magazine, she wrote an acclaimed guide to Honeymoons and Weddings Away. She is a past president of the New York Travel Writers Association and former editorial director of Endless Vacation magazine.
18-year-old Jenny Keroack wrote for the Observer Tribune from 2009 to 2012 and has been published in the Riverdale Press and Elegant Lifestyles. She was a researcher/blogger for the N.Y. League of Conservation Voters last summer and will be studying political science at the University of Chicago this fall.