Frites from Maison Antoine.
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Day 27: When in Brussels…

I’m always glad when we get to spend a weekend in a city during our travels, especially in Europe where public markets pop up like tulips in the spring. On Sunday in Brussels, we could barely turn a corner without running into one.

The Marché de la Gare du Midi is a wild combination of produce and flea market packed into a tight space under a highway overpass. The large Turkish and Moroccan immigrant population lives at this end of the city and dominates the market. Bowls of olives overflow next to hot griddles cooking up golzeme and flatbread.

We sought out a specific stand making flatbread wraps filled with feta cheese, olives, figs, onions, roasted bell peppers, dried tomatoes and even a whole dolma, then drizzled with honey. To top it off, it’s served with a glass of fresh mint tea. The flavors were truly a party in your mouth. The figs and honey act as a sweet hostess greeting you at the door while the stuffed grape leaf in the middle is like the intellectual philosophizing on the couch to anyone who will listen. By the end, everything is blended together, no longer distinguishable from one another.

Up the street, the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market is literally a public square full of junk. Sure, you can find some decent art and maybe some nice silverware or dishes. But you’ll have to navigate the eccentric deal-hunters pouring over broken boomboxes, naked Barbie dolls and “art” like the large framed photo of someone’s grandmother circa 1999.

With no room in our carry-on for one man’s treasure, we rode the glass elevator up to the viewpoint near Palais de Justice and tried to board the tram to our next destination. Apparently the tram was parked at the terminus, not at a stop. The driver tried to explain this in French, but after seeing our blank stares, he smiled and told us it was okay to get on because “you’re not from here.”

The tram took us to Place Flagey in the Ixelles neighborhood. A local market was just closing up for the day, but that was fine because we were there for frites! The line at Frit Flagey reminded me of Voodoo Doughnuts in Portland. Lining up for snack food seems ridiculous and I’m sure the locals scoff at the tourists who do so (just like in downtown PDX), but the product is worth it. Crispy and airy, most of the potato is fried away, leaving a dense, salty frit behind.

In true “When in Brussels…” form, we took a bus from Flagey to nearby Jourdanplein to try what are widely-considered the best frites in Brussels. Maison Antoine has been serving up frites for more than 60 years. The large stand is clearly king of the neighborhood as the surrounding bars all proclaim “Frites Welcome” in a variety of language, encouraging the visiting tourists to have a beer with their snack.

Maison Antoine didn’t disappoint with a more perfect frit, soft in the middle with a crispy shell. Each layer is salted instead of relying on gravity to do the work. Maison Antoine is a must-try during a stay in Brussels.

The public bus back toward our hotel became a hop-on, hop-off as it wound through the Sablon neighborhood, known for its antiques market and up-and-coming Belgian chocolate shops. We bought a few pieces of artisanal choco goodness at Passion Chocolates and walked around the neighborhood.

Nearby, we found views overlooking the city, including the central plaza of Grand Place. The town hall, completed in 1420, is the highlight of the plaza with its 315-feet tall bell tower. It’s surrounded by equally grand buildings, many highlighted with gold-foil details. It’s often ranked as the most beautiful public square in Europe and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.


A statue called "La Cycliste" by Alain Séchas features a cat on a bicycle overlooking a traffic intersection.

A statue called “La Cycliste” by Alain Séchas features a cat on a bicycle overlooking a traffic intersection.


An olive vendor's bounty at Marché de la Gare du Midi.

An olive vendor’s bounty at Marché de la Gare du Midi.


The crazy wrap at the Marché de la Gare du Midi.

The crazy wrap at the Marché de la Gare du Midi.


The insanity of Place du Jeu de Balle flea market.

The insanity of Place du Jeu de Balle flea market.


A vendor selling silverware and dishes at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market. An argument broke out nearby after a customer stepped on and broke a plate then pretended she didn't do it.

A vendor selling silverware and dishes at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market. An argument broke out nearby after a customer stepped on and broke a plate then pretended she didn’t do it.


View of Brussels from near Palais de Justice.

View of Brussels from near Palais de Justice.


Waiting in line at Frit Flagey.

Waiting in line at Frit Flagey.


A sculpture outside the 60-year-old frites institution of Maison Antoine.

A sculpture outside the 60-year-old frites institution of Maison Antoine.


Looking toward the Grand Place from up above Sablon.

Looking toward the Grand Place from up above Sablon.


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The town hall building at Grand Place.

The town hall building at Grand Place.


More Photo of the Day posts from our January-March 2016 trip to Europe

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