Good, Bad & Strange
An easy way to make sense of things.
Your Subtitle text

Where would you like to go in Europe?

FranceGermany,  Switzerland & Spain,  Morocco*,  IrelandBrussels


*Ok I know Morocco isn't in Europe, but most guide books treat it as though it is, so I'm going to do the same.

 Good Bad & Strange

 
France – November 2006

Conversation in a pub in Staffordshire – September 2006

“So your sister’s on holiday then John?”

“Yeah, she’s gone to a beautiful country that’s full of twats.”

“Hmm.  France or Wales?”

“France.”

We hoped to test out this theory while travelling in France.  Here’s what we found.

Good Things

The Bayeux Tapestry -  Still going strong after nine hundred years, the graphic story of William the Bastard’s victory over Harold is very impressive.

Nantes -  A nice city that will become nicer when the old chateau of the Duke of Brittany is restored in the centre.

War Memorials - The French haven’t forgotten the wars that they attempted to take part in.  The Memorial Museum in Caen (Normandy) and The History of the Great War in Peronne (in the Somme) are both extremely well put together and quite moving, when they are not full of surly French school kids.

Strasbourg – Although it’s only nominally French, many signs are in German as well and most of the people seemed to speak at least three languages.  It’s no coincidence that this is also where France’s best-known beer comes from.

Cognac – An average place with a few well-known companies based there. We did the tour of the Otard distillery and although I generally don’t like spirits I could get to like their brandy (sorry – Cognac).

Futuroscope – A theme park near Poitiers based around huge cinemas, many in 3D. Extremely interesting and entertaining throughout, the show over the lake that finishes proceedings each day was a breathtaking sight. 

Dijon (except the bed see bad things below) – The mustard capital of the world is surprisingly nice. 

Dinan – A lovely town in Brittany with ramparts you can walk around, great places to eat and a nice feel to it.

Food in general – We didn’t get a bad meal in three weeks, although Rebecca got a bit of a shock when a huge pot of veal kidneys turned up in front of her in one place. Crepes should be the national dish, without exception they were gorgeous when filled with sweet or savoury items. 

Food in Lyon – Food is even better in Lyon than anywhere else, which is good, because you’ll find the rest of Lyon in the Bad Things section below.

Bad Things

Dog Shit - on every pavement in every town.  The French just don’t pick it up.

Surly French school kids – Just as miserable and smelly as the ones back at home.

La Rochelle – Our guidebook said “a chic sophisticated port city”.  We said “a dirty and grotty, insufferably arrogant place”.  Possibly the worst place I’ve been to in Europe since we were in Italy, which, coincidentally, it reminded us of.

Mulhouse Motor Museum – A huge array of vintage cars collected with an insane passion by Fritz Schulmpf.  If you like the Bugatti brand, this is the place to be, if you’re not fussed about them it’s an expensive rip off.

Rouen – With the exception of the one handed astrological clock, this town is a pit. The only place in France with public pay toilets everywhere, which might explain why the town stinks. 

Beaujolais Nouveau – The new wine arrived while we were close to the Beaujolais region, so we tried a glass with our meal that night.  I should have ordered chips, as the wine may as well have been vinegar.

The bed in Dijon – Nice town, but our bed featured a mattress that seemed to be set in the middle at a 45-degree angle.

Weather, traffic and back streets in Lyon – Food in Lyon was great, everything else was a little bit grotty.

Calvados – Revolting apple based brandy that makes scrumpy look like a health drink.

 

Strange Things

Bread Laws – In Normandy at least, it appeared to be against the law to walk around a town without carrying a baguette.

Gray – To Rebecca’s delight, a town with her surname.  We arrived on a Monday.  The town was shut.

The Mont St Michel sparrows – Mont St Michel is a bizarre place, an abbey and surrounding town on a rock that is in the sea, but not an island. The place is an extremely efficient tourist trap, complete with resident sparrows that have learned how to fly into the chiller cabinets in bakers shops, grab a couple of mouthfuls of sandwich and then fly off without being noticed.

The American War cemetery on the D-day beaches – The cemetery itself was quite normal and a fitting tribute.  The memorial within was very American; huge, tacky and playing very loud glockenspiel and pipe organ renditions of “God Save the Queen” (quite strange) and “America the Beautiful” (vomit inducing).  For some reason each song was repeated, perhaps to annoy the French workers building a visitor centre on the site.

Carnac alignments – Fields of monoliths placed by prehistoric man on the Brittany coast. Think of an open-air storage facility for spares for Stonehenge and you get the idea.  Compelling to look at, but I’m not really sure why.

Eating raw meat – The French love it, steak tartar is a very popular dish.  I felt ill watching it being carried around restaurants, presented on a plate like it had just plopped out of a Pedigree Chum tin.

La Boucherie – Literally “The Butcher”.  A chain of restaurants selling meat and meat related products. Each one is decked out in red and white butchers stripes, with every menu printed on a piece of leather. When you’ve finished devouring your meal, the bill arrives tucked into a marrowbone.  Great food, but not entirely suitable for vegetarians.

Hotel Royal in Vichy – A palatial reception, a receptionist determined to get our business and an awful 4-foot wide bed with a space invader motif quilt cover with matching curtains.  Just a little bit on the strange side, a bit like Vichy where the average age is close to 104.

Speed Rabbit Pizza and Hotel Des Lices – Two places in Rennes with the kind of names I like.

 

So to summarise, France, a beautiful country? On balance, yes.  Was it full of twats? No, not entirely. 

 

Click on the picture below to see the France photo album (opens in a new window)

 

 
Germany – November and December 2006

Conversation in a pub in London – October 2006

“You like Germany don’t you Liam?”

“Yeah.  They have beer and... everything.”

“Mainly beer though.”

“Yeah.”

Germany is most definitely not France. Here’s what we found, taking in Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Leipzig and a few other places along the way.

Good Things

Christmas Markets – In Stuttgart (nicely laid out with good variety), Leipzig (good layout, very cheap booze), Nuremberg (the oldest and most famous, a little cheesy and caters mainly for the American with the fat wallet, but still good fun), Dinklesbuhl (good village atmosphere, complete with circus of chickens), Magdeburg (still open after 11pm when most shut at 9pm, a great place to drink too much gluhwein) and Ulm (real sheep in the nativity area and very tasty food).

Beer (especially in Munich) – Cheap and tasty, small or large, a vital part of German life.  Germany is probably the only country with laws against brewing bad beer.

Gluhwein – Mulled wine served at all of the Christmas markets.  Sickly and tasty all at once.

Berlin Olympic stadium – A fascinating place and not a bad game either between Hertha Berlin and Aachen.

The Reichstag in Berlin – Fantastic building with an interesting history and great views from the dome.

Stuttgart – Just a really nice place with all the best things Germany has to offer.

The vast war memorial in Leipzig – Ninety metres high, it celebrates the victory of Prussian, Austrian and other forces over Napoleon.  Why does everyone seem to love sticking it to the French?

Bad Things

Christmas Markets – In Berlin (fragmented and set up like fairgrounds, Christmas as an afterthought) and Munich (very expensive and not very friendly).

Too many tourists in main towns – Especially Italians, who may be the most annoying people on the planet.  Loud and obnoxious they make Americans seem shy and retiring in comparison.

Hotel in Munich – A real shitpit, probably indicative of the hotels in Munich generally, as most people are too beered up to notice if the place they are staying in is any good or not.

Strange Things

Coming back from the Olympic stadium on the U-Bahn – Happy Hertha Berlin fans sang, in a drunken fashion, long songs that made the other people on the train chuckle, so they were invariably rude or slagging off FC Bayern (who everyone outside Munich despises).  After a quiet interval of thirty seconds or so the same group of fans started singing “We only sing when we winning, sing when we winning, we only sing when we winning”.  It may have lost a little in translation, but we were laughing so much it didn’t matter.

Washing and drugs, Leipzig - Rebecca relaxed in the laundrette as our clothes dried.  I went into the town to buy her a birthday present.  While she was waiting, a couple of lads came in, sat at the table in the middle of the laundry and spent ten minutes skinning up huge spliffs, before moving on.  They worked in silence and didn’t bother any of the customers.

The Potato restaurant in Fulda – We liked the look of the menu, which featured a bewildering variety of potato dishes, so we went in.  It was only when we had ordered that we realised that all of the walls were adorned with naked studio shots of the same woman, who looked uncannily like the woman that served our food. 

Chocolate Advent Calendars – Obviously a new thing in Dessau, a huge pile were on display in the middle of a shopping centre. On closer inspection nearly all of them had some or all of the chocolates taken out.  It looked like the people of Dessau thought they were festive snack food offered by the shopping centre.

The Holocaust memorial in Berlin – “It’s a maze.” “No it’s not – it’s the holocaust memorial.”  “Well no one’s told the people running around in it and laughing loudly.”

“AC/DC, schön!” – My AC/DC t-shirt provoked joy from a woman serving us in a bakery. She had previously thought we were tourist scum and treated us accordingly, but was so overwhelmed by the thought of Angus Young that she had to leave the shop temporarily to recover.

Beer laws – It’s quite normal for Germans to wander around towns swigging from half litre bottles of beer and in the proximity of a football stadium it’s practically unlawful not to be carrying a beer.

All good stuff really.  Go to Germany, they’ve got beer and everything.

Click on the picture below to see the Germany Photo Album. (opens in a new window) 

 

 Switzerland, Spain and a bit more France – December 2006

Conversation in a pub in Staffordshire – September 2006

“So, where’s your brother living now?”

“Criminal-on-Sea, close to Gibraltar.”

“Does your brother speak the local language?”

“Yeah, he’s fluent in English.”

From Germany we drove to Spain through Switzerland and then across the south of France, passing through Toulouse, Carcasonne and Bayonne, before entering Spain and going through Bilbao, Burgos, Toledo and Madrid on the way to my Mum and Dad’s house, near Alicante, for Christmas.  

Good Things

Museum L’Art Brut, Lausanne – An impressive, if unusual, art museum full of work done by people with no formal training. Ranging from the incredibly good to the “what the hell is that meant to be?” the works of art were only part of the story.  With full biography notes provided for every artist, it quickly emerged that most of them lacked not only formal training, but also quite often a fair chunk of their sanity, making the collection even more remarkable.

Toulouse – A town full of narrow alleyways, with a good Christmas market. Many of the local people walking around appeared to be smiling for no good reason.  I liked it a lot.

Burgos cathedral – El Cid’s final resting place is the sort of building that makes you wonder just how powerful the Catholic Church once was. A fantastic place filled with incredible works or art. 

Museo del Prado, Madrid – In the excellent city of Madrid, the Prado is probably the best art museum I have ever visited. From Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (Rebecca’s favourite) through to the extensive Goya, Velazquez and El Greco (my favourite) collections.    

Christmas on the beach – My Mum and Dad have retired to Spain, so Christmas at their house gave us the rare opportunity of strolling along the beach in the sun on Christmas day.  There were even some people sunbathing, but they were obviously stupid; it was still bloody cold. 

Food – Narcotic, a shop specialising in molten hot chocolate in Toulouse, Cassoulet in Carcasonne, fantastic fondue and potato based meals at La Pataterie, a mainly vegetarian version of La Boucherie. 

Carcasonne – It’s on a hill and it’s got medieval turrets, what more could you want?

Bad Things

Finding an MP3 player, but losing a toll ticket, close to Abbeville, France – It was very windy. We stopped to change over drivers.  I spotted an MP3 player on the floor by my door as I got out.  I spent a couple of seconds trying to see if it still worked.  It did, so I was pleased.  Sadly, the toll ticket we had picked up several kilometres earlier must have blown out of the car while I was messing about with the MP3 player.  The lady at the tollbooth took pity on us when it became obvious from our terrible attempts to explain the situation in French that we had no idea what was going on.  The MP3 player turned out to be crap.  

International Red Cross Museum, Geneva and Geneva generally – Feeling the need to be inspired and injected with the enthusiasm you need to do the kind of great work the Red Cross and Red Crescent perform on a regular basis?  Don’t go to this museum then, it’ll make you wonder why anyone bothers.  Dull and insipid are kind ways to describe the museum and for that matter Geneva as well.   

Bayonne – Romantically foggy at night, miserable and damp during the day, Bayonne was full of people who looked a little bit inbred and acted accordingly.  The twat who walked down the middle of the car park a metre in front of our (slow moving) car for almost a hundred metres without realising we were there really deserved a prize for stupidity. 

Montelimar – Nougat capital of the world it may be, but it was the least welcoming town we went to in France, even worse than Rouen if that was possible.  The nougat is nice though.

Stupid pedestrians, Nîmes – Message to the pedestrians of Nîmes: - Those strange moving things are called cars and they inhabit roads, so when you cross without looking they tend to hit you.

Cheese Wagon – As we were driving to my Mum and Dad’s for Christmas we agreed to pick up some French cheese for my Mum on the way.  Unfortunately, we spent four nights on the road before we arrived at their house.  The net result, rather soggy cheese for my Mum and a car that stank like dog vomit for us.

Finding a hotel, Bilbao – Our first night in Spain was a bit of a disaster, driving around the centre of Bilbao in the dark with no idea where any of the hotels were, we got stuck in several traffic jams.  Eventually we went to the only hotel we could find, a very expensive place. Inside, the brown water that ran out of the taps for ten minutes before we could shower spoilt a wonderful looking room.

Strange Things

The El Corte Ingles song and its aftermath, Bilbao. – El Corte Ingles is a Spanish department store which plays a lovely little ditty when it’s about to shut.  Possibly meaning, “good-bye, fare-well we’ll see you another day”.  It could equally mean "sod off, get lost, we’re glad you’re going home”, depending on your frame of mind.  In Bilbao, as the song started to play, a huge crowd of South American looking people appeared outside the shop with goods wrapped in blankets, quickly creating their own market as the department store closed.  Ten minutes later a police siren sent them all scurrying across the road with their goods quickly bundled back into the blankets.  A few minutes later they were all happily setting up again. 

“A little bit Swiss.” – Switzerland was a bit expensive, but that didn’t matter.  It was very picturesque, which was good. But it was also a bit strange and unsettling, especially in Bern and Geneva.  So we invented the phrase “a little bit Swiss” to describe places or things that should’ve been good, but just ended up being a little bit uncomfortable.

Accordion Girl, Carcasonne – Possibly through a desire to earn a bit of cash, but more likely because her Mum had told her to “get outside with that bloody thing”, a teenage girl sings and plays accordion on the streets of Carcasonne with the kind of enthusiasm reserved for the terminally happy

High Street, Bern – Why does the High Street have so many large holes on both sides of the road?  It turned out that they were stairwells that lead to businesses based underground, very unsettling to drive past and definitely “a little bit Swiss”.

Rene’s Pizza van, Orange – A very grotty fixture in the fairly grotty town of Orange, Rene’s Pizza Van also looked like Rene’s mobile home.  In fact I wouldn’t have been surprised if she lived in the back and used any shedding skin as a special topping. 

Avignon – Apparently an important town in the past, Avignon is now a tourist haven with a broken bridge, lots of pigeons and a pizza restaurant that adds “shabby cheese” to all of its pizzas.  Perhaps they ship it in from Rene’s in Orange, although I hope not.  Fortunately we got extremely good service and a smile (more than other customers) purely on the strength of my AC/DC t-shirt.  “AC/DC rules”, said our friendly waiter as he delivered our food.

Sharp edges, Toledo – Walking around Toledo I was getting worried about the local population.  There seemed to be large swords and a variety of other lethal looking pointy objects available in every other shop.  Eventually we found out that the area is famous for its knives and swords and I relaxed a bit.  However, if you plan on stabbing someone, do it in Toledo, the police will never find the murder weapon.

“You’ve had enough”, Bayonne – An old man in a comfy chair wakes up in the hotel bar as we check in.  He demands a glass of wine and stands up to get it.  A few moments later he is told he’s had enough, as we help him up off the floor and back into the comfy chair. 

Difficulty adapting to Spanish time – On our first day we struggled to get used to Spanish time.  Shutting down everything for two or three hours around lunchtime was ok, because at least there were plenty of places to eat.   Not being able to eat anything but tapas until at least 9pm was a touch more tricky.

Chambord – A stately home in France with a double helix staircase in the middle. The grounds were probably full of animals at one time and there was a definite interest in hunting as you can see from the pictures in the photo album below.

Food – Tapas in Madrid, meant to be spicy potatoes, comes out as chips with ketchup.  Menu of the day in Toledo, a three-course meal that started with tripe soup and finished with a small orange, well two actually, because the man liked us.

Click on the picture below to see the Spain, Switzerland and a bit more France Photo Album (opens in a new window) 

 
Morocco – July 2007  

Conversation outside a very smoky open-air food area in Djemaa el Fna, the main square in Marrakech.

“Come in, come in my friends, have something to eat.”

“No thanks.  We’ve already eaten.”

“Ok.  You come back tomorrow night then?”

“Maybe.”

“You must come back.  We have full air conditioning for you, comfortable seats, Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan and a galaxy of stars.”

“Ok.”  - moving away fairly quickly

“See you later alligator.”

“Nutter?”

“I’d say so.” 

Well at least he wasn’t trying to poison us, or maybe he was and we didn’t give him the chance. We spent ten days in Morocco and that was probably nine days longer than I would’ve liked. 

Here’s the good, bad and strange. 

Good Things

Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech – The main square in Marrakech is a vast place that is full of market stalls during the day. At night it comes alive with a huge area of food stalls submerged in smoke, while drummers, snake charmers and water sellers in silly costumes entertain the crowds.  

Trains – Fast, efficient and cheap, a good way to get around, even if the air conditioning did seem to be connected to the toilet and smoking carriage at different points along the journey.

Tour of Fes – We had a guided tour of Fes that was informative and interesting, it was probably when we got poisoned as well, but I can’t prove that.

Food – Mint tea, couscous, tagines. 

Bad Things

Flight to Marrakech with Atlas Blue – Hopelessly inefficient check-in, an announcement to rush us to the gate when the plane hadn’t even landed, an unexpected stop in Paris for refuelling that resulted in the toilet overflowing and blue liquid streaming down the emergency lighting strips and arrival three hours late.  By far the worst flight this year.  

Gastric Flu – We were poisoned somewhere in Fes and had liquid arses for days.  I was in a really bad way and by the time we got to Rabat we had to call a doctor to our hotel room.  The reception desk got confused by the call and delivered a dental kit instead, very useful.  Eventually a doctor turned up and gave us some drugs so that we were in a fit state to go home.

Markets – The old cities (medinas) are full of labyrinthine alleyways of market stalls and souks.  They are easy to get lost in and hustlers can help you find your way around for a fee.  They also smell really badly (the markets, not the hustlers).  Some of things on offer included: carpets, leather goods, meat infested with flies and freshly severed calves heads. 

Carpet sellers – On our tour of Fes we were subjected to the carpet hard sell while being given free mint tea to drink.  Unlike many others, we drank the tea and then told the bloke to stop unrolling carpets, as we didn’t want any. 

Smells – Morocco stinks, especially in, well, everywhere actually.

Food – whatever it was that made us ill. 

Strange Things

Be careful what you say – At Gatwick, we spotted the plane arriving and then saw others from the check-in queue running to catch it.  We waved at them to slow down as they still had at least twenty minutes before boarding.  Two ladies and their children sat down with us and we had a good chat.  Unfortunately one of the ladies was in the shop when boarding started, so her companion sent her daughter in to fetch her with the line “get her out of there, go stick a bomb under her”.  She then realised where she was and slapped her hands over her face.  For a few seconds nobody knew what to say and then two ladies in full Muslim gear in the row of seats behind starting laughing – “put a bomb under her, that’s funny”. 

Tortoise attack – In the guest house (riad) in Marrakech I was interrupted while reading my book by a tortoise head butting my foot.  It looked a bit mean, but Rebecca fed it some lettuce leaves anyway.  It greedily chewed for a few minutes before walking over to where I was sitting and pissing next to my feet.  I was tempted to boot it in the pool, but I didn’t.

Jurgen the German – The owner of the riad we stayed at in Fes was a strange fat German who wore a white dress at all times.

Tanneries – In Fes, working conditions from the middle ages and beforehand, as the picture in the photo album below shows. 

Urban Festival in Fes – In the main square in Fes an urban festival was in full swing on Sunday night.  Against the backdrop of the ancient city walls, a group of musicians played traditional instruments to a crowd of about one hundred.  At the other end of the square a techno sound system blasted out behind a group of stilt walking dancers and at least ten times as many people danced around like loons. 

It’s still being built, even when it’s not – Areas of Marrakech and Fes could be described as biblical, as they haven’t been changed for centuries.  Conversely, every station and airport we saw was being renovated or rebuilt.  There is a real split between the Medina (old city) and the Ville Nouvelle (new town) areas and I know which one I preferred.

Satellite TV – A biblical setting complete with satellite TV.  Count the dishes in the picture in the photo album below. 

Food – Discovering that seven vegetable couscous came with a large chunk of beef embedded in it.  

Conversation at a reflective moment before leaving Morocco

Me: – “So, has Morocco knocked the spirit of adventure out of you?”

Rebecca: - “No.  It’s just made me realise that I want to be more selective about where I’m going to be adventurous.”

Click on the picture below to see the Morocco photo album (opens in a new window)

 
Ireland – December 2007 

After we had finished our travels in North America, we finished our year of touring with a trip to Dublin to see my friend Rory get married.

Here's the good, bad and strange.

A short part of a very long conversation in a pub on the outskirts of Dublin

“You see my Granddaddy didn’t drink until he was in his fifties, then he made up for lost time by drinking the whiskey every day.” – pause for reflection. 

“One winter’s night he got lost rounding up sheep in the snow.  We all got back to the house and he wasn’t there.”

“That’s terrible.” – with sympathy

“We found him in the morning, in the snow, with his hand wrapped round the whiskey bottle, but he didn’t have the strength to bring the bottle to his mouth.”

“The poor man, what a way to go.” – with sympathy, but trying not to laugh at the image

“Well the thing was he was still alive, so we got him in the house, but we must have put him too close to the fire.”

“How do you mean?” – trying really hard to keep a straight face

“Well, he thawed out too quick and the doctor says that was what killed him.”

“Well you’d think that a frozen man should be as close to the fire as possible, I suppose.” – desperately trying to say something to stop from laughing.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” – with a gleam in his eye that suggested he may have been stringing me on. 

I never did find out if the story was true, but for the sake of entertainment I’m going to assume it was. 

Good Things

Rory & Lisa’s Wedding - A very personal ceremony (see strange things below), followed by an excellent reception with an incredible five course meal and plenty of Guinness.  As you might expect from an Irish wedding; a good time was had by all.

“Jesus Rory, quail.” -  The meal started in a rather stylish fashion, which led to Rory’s brother making everyone smile during his speech by telling us that Rory had no idea what quail was until he moved to London.

Hospitality – Once the initial feeling of hostility towards the English wore off (usually sometime during the first pint) the Irish were marvellously hospitable and wonderful hosts, especially, Barbara and John – Thanks for letting us stay at your home, feeding us and telling us some fantastic stories. 

Bad Things

Getting there and coming back – Flights to Dublin from Heathrow are from a small metal tube of a terminal miles from anywhere else.  Ours was delayed.  Coming back was worse, Dublin airport is a nice enough place, but the thick fog in London meant we were stranded there for over five hours. 

Hire car rip off – An expensive car to start with got pricier when the charge came through.  The form that said “bring it back empty,” having been given to us in error.

Strange Things

Father Uncle – Rory comes from a large family, so the wedding ceremony was very personal, as it was performed by his Uncle.  I don’t suppose too many grooms can say that.

Irish storytelling – The stories can’t all be true, can they (see conversation above).  It doesn’t really matter if you can’t tell when you’re having your leg pulled or when the teller is being deadly serious.  Just try to laugh in the right places. 

Green is the colour – The national colour is green, which is handy because Ireland is very much a rural land.  Within fifteen minutes of leaving Dublin airport you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in the middle of a farm, a country sized farm.  With not much to do outside of work, it’s easy to see how the drinking and storytelling have come to such prominence. 

Concept of good ‘Craic’ – Less difficult to pin down than whether a story is true or not, good ‘craic’ can range from a pleasant few drinks in company to running from the English police after you have fly tipped a lorry load of tyres in an supermarket car park, apparently.

Click on the picture below to see a few Ireland photos  (opens in a new window)

 
Brussels – June 2008

Having visited six years ago, we decided it was time to take the Eurostar and go back to Brussels for some beer, chocolate and chips with mayonnaise.

Here’s the good, bad and strange.

Conversation between an exasperated French train manager on the Eurostar and a military equestrian type who had decided to use Brasso to clean up some of his horse gear on the train.

“Excuse me sir.  This is a carriage where people eat, could you put that away please?”

“Yes of course, if you’ve got a plastic bag.  I seem to have had a bit of an accident with it.”

Sadly the accident wasn’t swallowing the contents of the can. And we wonder why the rest of Europe sees the English as pompous and ignorant.

Almost a Conversation between a restaurant hawker in Rue de Bouchers and Rebecca

“Excuse me madam, excuse me.” – smiling as Rebecca slowed to a halt.

“Yes.”

“Can I ask you one question?” – grinning wider as he got ready to reel in another customer.

“You just did.” – Rebecca moves quickly away, leaving the bloke looking rather forlorn and wondering if he actually wanted to ask two questions.

Good Things

Food – Especially, but not limited to, chocolate.  Just incredible starting with the tasty croque monsieur from the corner café, through the exquisite salads at lunch time, to dinners loaded with so much taste it was difficult not to smile while you were eating.  Then you get started on the deserts and the chocolate and everything beforehand seems likes what is, a bit of a warm up for the main event. 

Compact capital of Europe – Brussels styles itself as the centre of Europe and with the Euro parliament in town there’s a real cosmopolitan feel to the place. The town is small enough to easily get around and it feels more like a comfy provincial town than a gigantic metropolis with no soul.

Beer – Belgium is justly famous for the quality of beer brewed there.  Rebecca particularly liked the fruit tinged varieties.

Art Noveau – Brussels has a huge variety of impressive Art Noveau buildings, often nestled in between modern buildings.

Grand Place – The main square, while only a small place, is full of medieval character and after a certain point in the evening, plenty of interesting or at least fairly drunk, characters.

Eurostar – Aside from the annoying Brasso Brits travelling in our carriage, the Eurostar was a thoroughly pleasing experience, fast, clean and with great service onboard. 

Bad Things

Prices, especially in and around the Grand Place – The capital of Europe attracts tourists.  The Grand Place provides a focus to the town.  Add one to the other and then double your price tags, especially in the outdoor bar areas in the Grand Place.

Midi station, and stations in general – Brussels isn’t a bad place, but if all you saw of it was its stations and especially Gare du Midi, the station that the Eurostar drops you at, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was miserable, dirty, piss smelling hovel.

Rue de Bouchers – Butchers Street is a narrow pedestrian street full of restaurants with tables outside.  At almost every door several men beckon you to come and try their food, or as the unfortunate man in the conversation above did, try to engage tourists in conversations.  This area should be in the good things section above, we ate there on our last visit and the food and atmosphere was great. This time we hated the place, it felt like the hawkers had taken over and were looking for the most drunken tourists to drag in and then overcharge.

Vom man – On Sunday morning we walked slowly through the streets to the north of the centre, strolling past nice parks and pretty Art Noveau buildings.  By the botanical gardens we stopped to admire the view.  Sadly, the moment was spoiled slightly by a man in a suit standing a couple of metres from us. He looked at the view and then vomited copiously on the floor. 

Strange Things

Mannekin Pis – The symbol of Brussels, a small naked boy constantly pissing into a fountain.  I hope the symbol of your home town is slightly more appealing.

Street Art – Most street art around the world is a bit on the odd side, Brussels is no exception.

The Atomium – A strange looking thing.  Built for the 1958 Expo it’s a scale model of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times.  I like it, but looking at the pictures again, I can’t really explain why.

Languages – Back on the capital of Europe theme again, it’s not enough to speak both official Belgian languages (French, Flemish), in Brussels you also need to converse in English, Spanish, German, and Russian.  Most locals can probably speak Welsh, Latin and Elvish too. 

Pavilion of Temporary Happiness – To mark the 50th Anniversary of the Brussels Expo this pavilion was been built at the back of the Atomium.  It contains a really good film show about the 58 Expo and how Belgium and the world as a whole have changed since.  Why’s it strange?  Well if the name isn’t enough; it’s made entirely of plastic yellow beer crates.  Hence the happiness, albeit temporary. 

Kebab Street – Rue de Bouchers is the home of loads of fabulous restaurants and hawkers galore.  Rue de Marches aux Fromages (Cheese Market Street) is the home of loads of Kebab restaurants. It’s strange to see so many doners spinning and sizzling away so close to each other and while it’s a lot more downmarket than Rue De Bouchers, it’s a lot more relaxed and very tasty too.

Enjoying Football in Public – As Belgium were as crap as England in qualifying, there were no local fans enjoying the Euro 2008 coverage. But as Brussels is the capital of Europe, in every restaurant, bar and café enthusiastic fans followed the games.  On Friday night Holland destroyed France, causing great celebration (everybody just loves beating the French) and there were flurries of orange everywhere.  The following day Spain beat Sweden and the red shirts happily danced in the Grand Place and drove around the centre with their horns blazing.  There was plenty of drinking, lots of noise and lots of smiles, but no trouble.  England fans please take note.

Click on the picture below to see the Brussels photo album (opens in a new window)