When the fiancée did me the honour of becoming the wife (we have not, thankfully, yet graduated to the point of ‘er indoors), we fancied a few days out of England to rest, recharge our batteries and generally to get to grips with married life. As both of us have conceived something of an aversion to air travel of late, not least thanks to the ghastly stories one keeps hearing, a train-based jaunt sounded best. But where? Paris we have done, and will be returning to later in the year; York was torn to shreds on a stag do; and Edinburgh might be bonnie, but these days the risk of having dark looks cast at one if one speaks the Queen’s English (as opposed to Salmond’s Scottish) was too much.
Mrs Larman beamed at me one day happily. ‘Plucky little Belgium? Couple of days in Antwerp and then Brussels on the way home?’ I looked at her askance. ‘Has marriage robbed you of the ability to put verbs in sentences?’ But it was decided upon. We would take the Eurostar to Antwerp, sojourn there for 48 hours, and then see whether we could take Belgium by storm before returning to Blighty, having had a brief taste of how the other half lives. So we boarded the Eurostar in the swanky ‘Standard Premier’ section, which is more comfortable, gives you a light snack and some wine, and the journey simply whizzes by. After a quick change at Brussels, we were in Antwerp a shade over three hours after leaving London.
Ah, Antwerp. We had been informed that it was some sort of Mecca for style and innovation, with artists and designers flocking to open canal-side boutiques and with the great and the good choosing to holiday there. In fact, we found a pleasant, well-appointed and rather charming city that seemed somewhat low on things to do, other than to visit one of the many excellent bars or to sample the equally superb chocolate.
The cultural highlight is visiting Rubens’s house, which is an unmissable part of any Belgian itinerary and offers a touch of voyeuristic joy (‘this is where the great painter painted!’), while the monumental cathedral amused us by playing various unexpected but oddly apposite songs on its bells; we heard ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘You’re The One That I Want’, both of which, I’m sure, have religious connotations in the right setting. But what we also noticed, and this was probably our fault for visiting on a Sunday and Monday, was how terribly quiet everywhere was; bars and restaurants seemed ill-attended, and you could walk round the historic centre without being bothered by much human company at all.
We were staying at the De Witte Lelie hotel in the middle of town, which combined splendid aesthetics and brilliant public spaces with some slightly odder touches. We were surprised that our room was decorated in a brilliant shade of pink; Mrs Larman, the most feminine of women, was somewhat taken aback by both this and by the fact that the bathroom was completely transparent, meaning that privacy was hardly at a premium. We were impressed by the excellent dining room, where we had breakfast, which felt like a Belgian version of the Pig aesthetic, all big dressers and open cookers. We were a good deal less impressed by the 30-euro per head charge for what turned out to be a few cold cuts, a bit of juice and some scrambled eggs. My advice to anyone visiting Antwerp would be to stay at the De Witte Lelie – by far the best establishment in town – but not to bother with the breakfast, and to be very specific about one’s room requirements. It would be dreadful to pitch up and find oneself embarrassed.
We didn’t get too much of a chance to patronise the city’s restaurants, but the canalside Dock’s Café is well worth a visit, if only for the aesthetic, which is a kind of 19th century steampunk take on a grand café. Would that we could say the same about the lamentably slow service, which saw the meal drag on for hours and hours, or the food, which took the decision to smother everything in cheese. We left Antwerp with high expectations of Brussels, the metropolis and capital. Were they to be met?
On the whole, yes. It’s only an hour from Antwerp to Brussels, but the two cities couldn’t be more different. Antwerp feels as if it’s straining between the old and the new, whereas Brussels has the comfortable and relaxed elegance of a European capital. Calling it the poor man’s Paris is to damn it with faint praise, but it has much of the style and class of its neighbour, albeit with a greater emphasis on beer and moules-frites. We were staying at the Steinberger Grandhotel, a slick and well-appointed luxury hotel slightly outside the city centre, and all mod cons that could be asked for were present; the only mild surprise was that it doesn’t have an especially inspiring restaurant, although we were assured that plans were underway to build one for later this year.
Brussels is a hugely underrated city to wander around. It features treats by the store, from the Magritte museum (an absolute must for all fans of surrealist art) to the oh-so-sophisticated Sablon area, which has all the style and architectural grandeur of Paris without any of the condescension or eye-popping prices. The cuisine is considerably more advanced here, as well. We popped into Gramm for dinner, a Brittany-Japanese fusion restaurant, and, bizarre though it sounds, we were extremely impressed. Offering a no-choice, five-course tasting menu, it’s clearly angling for Michelin status, and may very well get it. Dishes were served with some flair and panache, and even mackerel, a particular bête noire of mine, tasted delectable. Only a too-sharp take on lemon meringue at the end marred what was otherwise a high point.
Just before we took the Eurostar back, Mrs Larman and I enjoyed a final drink at a café in the Salbon. We looked at one another wistfully. It had been a hugely enjoyable trip, for all the eccentricities and oddities we’d seen along the way. ‘I could get used to this’, she murmured, wistfully. It was all I could do to agree. Which I suppose bodes well for a long and happy marriage.
To find out more about activities and visitor attractions in Flanders, head to Visit Flanders at www.visitflanders.com. Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.