Bruxelles, winter wonders

Montréal Luminaires

The first thing we noticed as we headed to the luggage carousels was the latest collection from Sarah Pacini, whose head office is in Belgium. One of the looks for the season was beautifully displayed on all advertising panels along the corridor, to excellent effect. We had arrived at last in the city of Magritte, Hergé, chocolate and moules frites.

It was late November, and, as is common in many European cities, Christmas markets were in full swing in all the major squares. In Brussels, more than 200 stalls offered local crafts and treats, while rides and a giant Ferris wheel added to the festive feel. Last year, Quebec City was the guest of honour at the event.

The Grand-Place is the perfect backdrop for a variety of activities, parades and concerts. At night, young and old gather to watch the lighting of the Christmas tree and listen to carols sung by children’s choirs. Sound and light shows to classical music also contribute to the magical atmosphere. It is utterly enchanting, and we couldn’t think of a better way to get into the Christmas spirit! Mild weather – between 8 and 12 degrees – makes it pleasant to explore the city on foot. In fact, it was during one of these extended strolls that we discovered Les Nocturnes du Sablon, located in a neighbourhood of the same name, which is known for its art galleries and antique shops.

This annual Brussels event is a favourite with locals and tourists alike. It is essentially a four-day, open-air food festival – a kind of “walking restaurant” featuring fabulous dishes, some prepared by elite chefs. It was an absolute delight, as was Lola, a dining experience we enjoyed immensely. Another must is La Mer du Nord, where people elbow their way in to order an assortment of seafood snacks, which you eat with your fingers, standing up. Brussels is definitely brimming with all kinds of interesting and trendy eateries.

The Parcours BD (a comic strip tour) is also great fun. You walk through the city, looking up to take in some 50 giant murals that immortalize beloved comic book characters. Brussels celebrates its cartoon heroes just about everywhere: countless book stores and boutiques overflow with comic books, collectible miniatures, engravings and lithographs. The MOOF Museum, a 3D comic strip museum, is always a hit with kids.

Finding the Manneken-Pis, the emblem of the rebellious “zwanze” (joker) spirit of the city; eating waffles at Dandoy; tasting chocolates at Pierre Marcolini; buying comic books…these are some of the many pleasures of Belgian capital.

Amigo Hotel

On a recent trip to Brussels, I stayed at the Amigo Hotel, located in the heart of the historic part of the city. The moment I arrived, I was smitten with the warm welcome, and was delighted to find myself just steps away from museums, Christmas markets, and one of the most famous squares in Europe. The Grand-Place, with its impressive, ornate buildings, has been an important gathering place since medieval times.

It was November, which marks the start of seasonal festivities in Brussels. The salon next to the main lobby featured “Chocolate Afternoon Tea,” with a superb assortment of fine chocolates, pralines and other treats by Pierre Marcolini. We enjoyed them to beautiful live harp music, and a well-chilled glass of champagne added just the right sparkle.

The hotel is in a historic building that was once a prison. In 1957, it was renovated to host royal families and other celebrities during the 1958 World’s Fair. Today, it is one of the 10 hotels in the Rocco Forte Hotels group, run by Sir Rocco Forte and his sister, Olga Polizzi.

A great sportsman and triathlete, Rocco Forte is a veteran of the hotel business: he is the former President and CEO of Forte Group plc, where he was in charge of 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and nearly 100,000 employees in more than 50 countries. The Rocco Forte Group was created after Forte Group plc was sold in 1996, which resulted in a hostile takeover and the dismantling of the company. The new Rocco Forte Hotels group went on to develop emblematic establishments, each with its own particular style, in a variety of magnificent locations.

The design of each room is supervised by Olga Polizzi herself. She creates unique décors that combine traditional and contemporary styling with the spirit of the city in which the hotel is located. Here, reproductions of paintings by Marcel Broodthaers and René Magritte hang proudly on the walls, and figurines of Tintin, Milou and Captain Haddock are in abundance. The windows look out onto narrow cobblestone streets or an interior courtyard. The floor tiles in the lobby date from the 7th century. The brilliant mix of old and new lends authenticity to the rooms, which invite you to relax in luxurious comfort.

Amigo also houses Bocconi, the famous Italian restaurant recognized as one of the best in the Belgian capital. Foodies will want to reserve a spot in one of the cooking classes offered during the holiday season by chef Marco Visinoni, which include a trip to the Morning Market. Once you stay in a Rocco Forte hotel, discovering the other properties is simply a must.

Bruxelles, winter wonders – e-mag

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