Brussels In 48 Hours
Coffee, women in coffee, development work —these were the words going on in my mind as I touched down Brussels airport from Rome. I arrived at night and looked forward to the two-day conference at Tours and Taxi, yes the name of the venue is quite odd or different.
But of course the first day of my visit was to Antwerp and sell Philippine coffee, hopefully, to one of the world’s biggest importers. I touched base with the Philippine Investment Trade Center and drove to the port city of Belgium with Commercial Officer Benedict Uy. Ben did not know it would be an instant “cupping” experience. To taste Brazil, Honduras, and Colombia —all on one table. Very good prospects to let them try our very own Benguet, Bukidnon, and Matutum, I tell myself—if only we had volume. These guys are serious—350,000 MT of coffee stored in Belgium’s biggest coffee facility—that’s our ten year’s production, I laugh inside.
After our Antwerp driving tour, we headed back to Brussels to see familiar haunts. Ben took me around to see the headquarters of the EU, the building where all the meetings are held, and the other missions and country offices –much like the United Nations, except this is the European Union. What I see on CNN suddenly came to life.
I tell Ben I remember spending only one day in Brussels many years ago and what I can remember is the Mannikin Pis (the little boy peeing), the grand square or platz and Confiserie Dandoy. Ben obliged—it helped that his car had diplomatic plates and could park at the P sign with a CD mark (Corps Diplomatique). We could walk around the Grand Platz and admire the centuries-old structures like the City Hall, among others. I also remember Leon de Bruxelles—though my first encounter was in Paris—and guess what? This is the headquarters of LEON de BRUXELLES. Though every café and bistro served Moules Frites (mussels and French fries) I had to try Leon’s original spot, like a tourist.
I did not miss checking out Maison Dandoy (I don’t know when they changed the name from Confiserie to Maison) and got myself some Madeleines, financiers and their famous cookies with Speculoos (at one time a very faddish luxury in Manila). This is Speculoos country. The next shop was the familiar Belgian lace store, another famous destination.
Chocolates? This is Belgium and Belgians perfected the craft of making fine chocolates. “There is a hierarchy,” my friend said. The highest is Pierre Marcolini, followed by Neuhaus, Leonidas and finally, Godiva. Don’t get me wrong, they are all good, except the more discerning palates have their preferences. The hierarchy is based on price as well as packaging and maybe, quality.
I am not an expert to discern the minute differences between brands, yet. I just know I like 70% dark chocolate.
In the evening, my host Donna and I walked towards the grand platz again and this time to look for the least touristy place. Being Asians (she is half, Brit-half Pinay), we found a Vietnamese joint around the corner from the tourist pedestrian zone. It is called what else but ‘little vietnam’ —owner-operated and authentic. It’s because the touristy places offer the same menu: Moules Frites, Steaks, and seafood. As she is from London and I from Manila, we combed the area on foot and gave in to our Asian desires for rice and noodles.
The next day the CABI group and I checked out a nice place for dinner- La Quincaillerie ( meaning ‘hardware store’) a 30 –year old restaurant serving fresh oysters, sole, and mostly seafood dishes. The interiors are interestingly preserved with drawers and boxes just like when it served its original purpose—that of being a hardware store.
And finally on my last day, I checked out the food trucks at Tours and Taxis. They serve mostly crepes and sandwiches, with a few Asian trucks serving Pad Thai and rice dishes. As I was about to choose my lunch, a lady approached me to give me a lunch ticket. She is probably an angel. I went up to a hall to get my complemenatry sandwich and drink, plus an apple for dessert.
Another idea on Wednesdays is to go to a farmers market in Ixelles, according to Ben Uy, whose office is just in front of the market. Alas, I could not manage because just like Paris, Brussels on my last day of visit had a Firemen’s protest and Ben suggested I head to the airport sooner than later. Next time, Ben.
Brussels, it’s a bit of France, Germany, and Netherlands as it is bordered by these three countries and Luxemborg. It’s such a melting pot, I did not know what language to try and greet people in. French? Flemish? German? Public transport is also easy as well as Grab and ride-sharing services. And most people actually take bicycles to work.
It’s a nice stop even to just eat Moules Frites, have the best Belgian chocolates and have the freshest seafood. Or taste coffee, like I did.