Aside from watching Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France 2019, my beloved and I re-aquainted ourselves with the architectural splendours of Brussels, and some of its fine dining establishments. Our hotel was centrally located, next to the Town Hall and behind Le Grand Place, perfect for pottering around the city’s largely pedestrianised cobbled lanes. Knowing the traffic would be hellish due to Tour road closures, we took the train from the airport to the main station and walked the half a kilometre or so to our hotel which was an oasis of air-conditioned calm – sheer bliss.
Not to be left out, the hotel had embraced the spirit of the Tour with a couple of Merckx bikes, one in the restaurant and one in the bar which also had a signed photo of Eddy on its walls. This was aside from all its references to The Adventures of Tintin, a series of 24 comic albums created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name Hergé. My beloved and I fondly remember the tales of Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock, the Thompson Twins (called the Dupont Twins in French).
Aside from it being 50 years since Merckx won his first of five Tours, 100 years since the introduction of the yellow race leader’s jersey, it was also the 90th anniversary of Tintin’s debut, 50 years since the moon landing and 10 years since the opening of the Hergé Museum. That’s one hell of a lot of celebratory cakes or, as we’re in Brussels, celebratory chocolate! Fortunately it was too hot all weekend to be tempted by any of the wonderful chocolate shops, not even those of Pierre Marcolini.
Having arrived later than anticipated we unpacked and headed out to find a place for dinner. We didn’t have to stray too far before we found one that fitted the bill: traditional Belgian fare, long-established family business and the obligatory white linen tablecloths. We were not disappointed. My beloved indulged in mussels and chips (with mayo) – well we were in Brussels – and they were delicious! I may have had one or two…….just to substantiate his claims.
It was evident from the languages being spoken that many cycling enthusiasts the world over were in Belgium for the start of the Tour de France. It was going to be a full house for its first couple of stages. Sated we wandered back to our hotel and a good night’s sleep.
After breakfast, we headed out to the Brussels Expo on the train to collect my press accreditation. Brussels Expo comprises 12 exhibition halls on the Heysel plateau. The five emblematic Art Deco style halls (5, 4, 6, 2 and 10) built around the lake (facing the Atomium) are a legacy of the 1935 World Fair and are truly imposing structures. We hot footed back to our hotel just in time to see the peloton roll past on their way out of town.
We lunched in the hotel bar and were royally entertained by a series of wedding parties exiting the nearby town hall. Tempting though it was to watch the finish live, we had already viewed the packed crowds at the finish this morning before the stage had even started, we opted to experience it in air-conditioned comfort on the large screen.
The hotel had a highly-rated restaurant where we ate dinner after expending a few calories in the gym. Dinner did not disappoint and we went for a slowish amble round town to enjoy its many splendours. Le Grand Place was smaller than I remembered and more gilded – more finery perhaps in honour of Le Grand Depart. However, I had not forgotten how painful it was to walk on those cobbles and had packed uber-comfortable shoes! We even popped into the hotel where we’d last stayed – still splendid – for a nightcap.
The following morning we met up with some cycling friends and walked to the stage start in the Place des Palais, enjoying hospitality in the Village du Depart where we lunched courtesy of 21st Century. We greeted a few more friends in the Bus Paddock, watched the first couple of teams roll off of the starting ramp before continuing our ramble round Brussels, this time taking in the area around Le Petit and Le Grand Sablon. As the crowds began to disperse it was much easier to take photographs of the buildings and their splendid architectural details. Brussels is, of course, home to a number of fine museums but we preferred to continue wandering around in the sunshine.
Again, we watched the conclusion of the stage in our room and visited the gym before heading out to find another restaurant for dinner. We’d spotted a couple of likely candidates on our many walks but these were both closed on Sunday evening. However, one nearby looked promising, and it was. After a delicious dinner, we continued our perambulations before returning to the tranquility of our hotel and another good night’s sleep.
Monday morning allowed us to continue our investigations on foot. The crowds had greatly decreased as the tour circus had left town, sadly most of the museums are closed on a Monday, providing us with an excuse to return. After lunch in the hotel bar, my beloved left by train for London while I flew back to Nice where a security alert had prompted a comprehensive passport check which involved a 45 minute wait in an area where the air-conditioning had caved. Emerging hot and bothered, it was good to see the friendly face of our driver Christophe. Home sweat, sweltering, home but at least my beloved’s presence wasn’t raising the temperature a couple of degrees more.