“Brussels? Really?” is the kind of skeptical response I usually get when listing Belgium’s capital as one of my favorite European cities. I am not sure what people’s beef is with Brussels, but I was charmed by it on my very first visit more than a decade ago, adored it through the subsequent Christmas season, and liked it just as much when work took me back there this past July.
Actually, I liked it better. Because Annie Montgomery.
Annie and I met up on the third day of my trip, and I think whatever small reservations each of us might have had about our personalities meshing well, have evaporated by the time we got our first trays of drinks. Oh yeah, we both buy our booze in bulk, how could we not be a match?
You know how nice and cute and sweet Annie comes across in her blog? And how you might think that nobody is that way in real life? Well, Annie IS, only about 10 times more! It’s absolutely ridiculous – in the best possible way. Also, this tiny southern belle has quite a mouth on her – though I’m not sure she’d like this fact being made public ;-). Too bad.
I do not remember the last time I enjoyed talking to someone so much on the first encounter. First it was over the aforementioned trays of beer at Delirium Tremens by Grand Place, then over a fancy-schmancy dinner at Viva M’Boma in the St. Catherine neighborhood, and then, having closed out seemingly all watering holes in central Brussels, we continued chatting away while strolling the city’s cobblestone streets well into the night, Mr. Montgomery and his endless patience in tow.
Here I must backtrack a little and say a few words about that fancy dinner of ours. When I first told Annie about my upcoming Brussels trip she was immediately ready with recommendations of where and what to eat for all my non-business meals, and offered to line up a few places for our night on the town. Usually, whenever I travel I like to sample all the cliché local dishes, but this wasn’t my first Belgian rodeo, so I was ready to skip the frites and the moules and the waffles in favor of something more creative and esoteric, something I could not get in Russia.
Boy, did Annie deliver!
In fact, my order at Viva M’Boma was so, um, creative, that the Snobbiest Waiter Ever first made a Face and then asked – TWICE! – if I were sure I wanted to place it, because the taste was very “specific and strong.” Damn straight I was sure!
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the infamous pork penis!
The taste kind of matched the appearance, but, surprising myself, I still managed to eat more than half, and that was on top of my escargot appetizer. Did I mention that it was the first time that I ate snails? No? Well, it was. I was clearly in adventurous mood in Brussels. And I really wanted to stick it to the Snobbiest Waiter Ever.
For no reason that I can comprehend Annie ordered the Pork Penis™ too, and I think she is still traumatized by it. Mr. Montgomery (aka Justin), evidently thinking that Annie and I were playing it far too safe, threw all caution to the wind and went for a plate of assorted animal organs. It was a meal to remember, for sure.
What else did I get up to in Brussels?
I drank tiny cappuccinos, revisited my beloved Grand Place, cheered on the Netherlands in the World Cup semi-finals, ate pizza with truffles and the craziest shawarma ever, attended more than a dozen presentations and a champagne-fueled red-carpet gala (thank you mommy for making me pack a cocktail dress at the last minute!), listened to brilliant speeches by creative masterminds behind Lego, Coca-Cola, AOL and Huffington Post, and generally had a grand old time mixing business with pleasure.
I think that’s what I like about Brussels so much: it’s a smallish, very cute, very charming and tourist-friendly European city that just keeps going about its worldly business. And this appeals to me in a way that all proper cities do. Moscow, NYC, Madrid, London, Paris. At a fast pace they all go about their lives and their business, and that business is more than themed cafes and souvenir shops and picture-perfect squares. But they still do it all with style, class and beauty.
Brussels, with its EU-this and corporate-HQ-that, is made of real-life stuff in a postcard-pretty setting. My spirit city-animal.
Is there a destination that you love but that nobody else “gets”?