Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Brussels and a dodgy hotel turns out to be really good...

Now I know what the flight simulator on my new iphone is good for: whenever I'm dining alone, which is often, I can get it out and have a fly around. This evening, sitting alone in the restaurant of the Ramada Brussels (there were only four other diners throughout while I sat there) I took a World War ll Spitfire for a spin. Alright, I could have read a book or a magazine, but I was tired and I needed some kind of recreation, so a Duvel and a short-lived flight in an old World War ll fighter plane seemed like a good idea.

The last time I was in Brussels was around 2004 when I was here to find restaurants that matched beer with food (I found two) and now, nine years later here I am again. I took the Eurostar from St Pancras (the 1504 train to Lille (a great place) and Brussels Midi, and the first thing that irritated me was the fact that virtually all the way to the tunnel itself, the train was constantly in tunnels, which made chatting to anybody on the mobile phone a bit of a nightmare. I kept losing the signal, then re-dialling, then losing the signal, then reidailling get the picture.

Room 324, Ramada Brussels – initially not impressed.
So I'm motoring towards Brussels in seat 16 (an aisle seat) but, fortunately, nobody claimed seat 15, so I made the most of it, spreading myself across both seats, using the laptop and doing a bit of work without having to worry anybody else, which suited me fine.

Why was I on the mobile phone? I'm going to need a new car as the oil seal – and possibly the gear box – has gone on the old Kia, which means another hefty bill and more debt. I wouldn't mind, but I'd just had a little windfall (nothing major) but it made a fair old dent in a credit card debt and now, here I am, about to get into even more debt in order to buy another car. First some idiot went up the backside of my Beamer, writing off a perfectly decent car and putting me in debt, and now the old Kia's given up the ghost and I've got to shell out extra cash that I don't have to buy a new car. I can't say I'm happy about it.

Anyway, the Eurostar. Not sure if I like the Eurostar. It's not exactly the Orient Express or the Scotsman and there are so many carriages – crammed with seats – that I never know which way to head for the buffet car. Not that it mattered, as I didn't bother. I'm trying to lose a bit of weight. Instead, I worked throughout the journey, alighting at a decidedly drab-looking Brussels and remembering how, the last time I was here, I thought it looked remarkably like Streatham (around the station area). It's a load of concrete and office blocks and, alright, it's the hub of the European Union too.

I found a cab that drove me to what must be (I thought initially) the worst hotel I've ever stayed in, although it redeemed itself considerably when it came to the restaurant. Why did I consider it the worst? Well, to be honest, now that I'm going through the blogpost I initially penned last night, while tired and irritable, I began to realise that it wasn't such a bad hotel after all and that a lot of the problems I had with the place yesterday were relatively minor. And besides, I was feeling a little miffed about the car situation, so perhaps I was being a little unfair. Having said that, things did happen when I went to check in. For a start, they didn't have my reservation, and it was their fault, not my travel company's. Then they put me in s huge room, room 324 with three single beds in it, two of which were pushed together to make a double.
Pheasant with potatoes and, I think, pears! Oh, and a glass of Duvel.
I don't like huge rooms with loads of space. For some reason I can't get a good night's sleep. I started off the night in the two single beds pulled together to make one double and after a while the air-con system started to annoy me. It was a little on the noisy side and it was too warm and I was too tired to get up and figure out how to turn it off. So, when I awoke at 0137hrs, I decided to move to the single bed on the other side of the room and there I slept until the alarm went off at 0630hrs.

The hotel is very black and while in terms of decor and while this was fine, it reminded me of a packet of Lambert & Butler cigarettes. I had a separate bathroom and toilet, a double aspect view (onto crappy old office buildings, flats and a dual carriageway) and a rubbish television set that simply didn't work (and there I was hoping to watch the 'I'm a Celebrity' coming out party. Sadly not, unless I could get it working. Remember, I'm an hour ahead of the UK, so there was a chance. But I didn't bother. I simply went to bed.

Fresh fruit salad – absolutely perfect.
 With such a bad first impression of the hotel I asked the man on the front desk what was happening 'outside of the hotel' – meaning restaurants – and he said that there was nothing. The hotel, which, incidentally, is the Ramada Brussels, is located in a kind of business/residential area.It's a EUR25 taxi journey away from Brussels Midi. Yesterday, while initially writing this post, I warned readers away from the Ramada, saying it was a lairy place and that I didn't like it, but now, in the cold light of day, changed my mind. It was only a short journey from my appointment so once all the business was out of the way, I walked back to pick up my suitcase before heading into the centre of Brussels. But the friendly Japanese receptionist made me reconsider my general bad attitude towards the place and soon I found myself resolving to stay for lunch, given the amount of time I needed to kill before jumping on a homeward bound service at 1856. And once again, the hotel delivered and I forgave them many things, like the shower, which I had so much difficulty trying to work that I opted for a bath instead, and the plug in the sink which simply wouldn't close no matter what I did.

Room 324's dysfunctional bathroom.
Last night's meal was fine, although it was initially touch and go. From the reception area I found the restaurant easy to reach as it was just at the top of a flight of stairs. Trying to reach it from another angle was problematic. The hotel reception has two long corridors running off of it and at the end of each corridor are the lifts. This in itself is odd as normally the lifts are close to the reception area – but not here. I tried to find the restaurant by taking the lift from my room on the third floor to the first floor, but gave up as there were no signs. It was best to go to reception and take it from there. At the top of the stairs, the first thing I encountered was the bar, which was nice enough, and beyond it what looked like some kind of Japanese noodle bar. This was reserved for a large party of Japanese, the real breakfast room was, in fact, the restaurant proper. I walked through to the restaurant and I spied polished wine glasses and tablecloths, not forgetting a decent-looking menu.

I ordered the specials – wild mushrooms to start and pheasant as mains – both of which were fine, accompanied as they were by some bread and, of course, a glass of Duvel (I had two) and not forgetting an excellent fresh fruit salad to finish.

This was going to be a fleeting visit. Here today, back tomorrow night, and I gained an hour in the process, which was all good.

For dinner I chose wild mushrooms, which, while fine – they were fried mushrooms – lacked any discernible wildness. I could have made them myself as it appeared to be just a handful of wild mushrooms fried in oil. The pheasant, however,  was amazing (check out the pic) and the fresh fruit salad was just what the doctor ordered.

Electric trees near the Grand Place, Brussels.
It's too dark and too cold to go out looking for 'Boris Bikes'. There are 'Boris Bikes' here as I saw a docking station the following morning as I walked back from my appointment to the hotel where I had left one of my bags. The problem is twofold, however: first, the weather (it's a bit nippy); and second the traffic (similar to London) so I didn't bother. As I approached the hotel reception area at the end of my brief walk from the nearby Rue Colonel Bourg (venue of my earlier appointment) I noticed they were advertising the restaurant and thought it would be a good idea to hang around the hotel for lunch before heading into the centre of town later this afternoon (remember, I've got time to kill until 7pm before I take the Eurostar back to London). Solution: have lunch at the hotel. And it was a good decision. Mushroom soup (probably yesterday's leftovers from those wild mushooms on offer) followed by a whole sole with vegetables) and not forgetting a Duvel (just one this time) and another of those wonderful fresh fruit salads.

Once again I was the only one in the restaurant, but that didn't matter. I took out the flight simulator again and amused myself until the menu arrived, although, in all honesty, flight simulators are very boring and soon enough I got bored. Then I chose the above and awaited their arrival. It was a very enjoyable meal and while in an early version of this very post I advised people not to bother staying at the Ramada, I've now completely revised my opinion, although it's a little out on a limb, ie nowhere near the city centre. Having said that, it was just down the road from my appointment, which was the main reason for coming here in the first place.

One thing I must mention is something that always bugs me with hotels that try too hard to be trendy. They never follow the golden rule of 'function before form', meaning that they have taps and bathroom fitments designed and installed that simply don't work – or rather prove alien to anybody who tries to use them – and I fell victim prior to breakfast. I wanted a shower, but never got one as I couldn't work out how to turn the shower on. In the end I ran a bath. Likewise, I couldn't figure out how to close the plug on the basin and had to resort to a continually running tap as I shaved (what a waste of water).

So, a shower I can't work, a plug I can't work, a television I can't work, a telephone that won't work properly, the lack of a reservation when I arrived last night and a room that was huge, you might think it all added up to a bad stay – and intially it did – but to be honest with you, when I returned in the afternoon, I thought otherwise – thanks to a friendly receptionist and a decent lunch. I'm not planning on eating more than a sandwich later on (I had an egg and cress sandwich and a bottle of Pellegrino on the train).

How could I have forgotten the Grand Place? If ever you're in Brussels, make sure you visit this great square, surrounded by fantastic architecture and, if you're there at night, a free light show. I remember back in 2004 when my photographer Rob Wilkinson and I were sitting on the Grand Place, sipping a Belgian beer and killing time after dinner before heading back to the hotel, when, suddenly, the square came alive with the most amazing light show and music, sometimes classical, other times more electronic and possibly even a mixture of the two. It's certainly a crowd puller and I couldn't very well go home without seeing it again. Taking the 79 bus from outside the hotel to the Metro I travelled on to Brussels Central Station where I alighted in the dark (it was around 4pm) and made my way to towards the square. People were out Christmas shopping, the shops were alive and illuminated – and so were some of the city's trees (see photo).

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