23 March 2017

FEATURE: A Weekend in Brussels

City life.

This review isn't about a thing we've been testing, nor is it about a collection of things you can buy. Instead, this is a look at a flight, a hotel, and at a European capital city. In the first of our destination features we take a leisurely wander around the Belgian capital of Brussels.

Why? Well, our good chums at bmi Regional offer regular, inexpensive and quick flights to the city, departing from Newcastle International Airport. Our Editor Howard had the opportunity to try the route out, spending a couple of days in Brussels, before returning back to Blighty. Here's what he made of it:

If somebody offers you a free flight anywhere, you'd jump at it, right? I did just that when bmi Regional told me all about their flights from Newcastle to Brussels; a city I had never been to, nor really knew all that much about. With my bag packed, and with no real idea of what to expect, I headed off.

Newcastle Airport is a relatively small and uncomplicated place, yet they offer flights to pretty far-reaching destinations. From check-in to moving through security and waiting at the gate, there is very little walking to do and I was set to board the early morning flight without the airport part of the journey having been a big, time-consuming deal.

However, what was a big deal was the aircraft bmi Regional used for the flight... or rather a small deal. It was the smallest jet I'd ever been on, with only about 30 seats, and a row of single seats along the left side of the cabin. It felt more like a first class train carriage than a plane, with all seats having plenty of leg room and aligned with the windows. It reminded me of a private jet, but one I shared with a bunch of strangers. By the way - did you know you can have fractional private jet ownership (although you don't NEED it to fly private if you know what to look for)? 

Although the flight was scheduled to take 1 hour 25 minutes, it only actually took an hour. During the flight the single flight attendant served drinks and hot sandwiches (definitely welcome at 6.30am), and was very chatty and friendly. The route between the two cities takes you mostly over the North Sea, but there was some great scenery to spy as we took off over Newcastle and came down over the windmill and solar panel-filled landscapes of Belgium. It was a smooth flight that was made all the more exhilarating due to the aircraft's relatively small size.

Brussels Airport is a bit of a beast, being a connecting point for flights from every corner of the world. However, once through border control it was a short walk to the airport's subterranean train station, and only a 20 minute ride to Brussels Central, right in the heart of the old city. But I wasn't staying there, so first I trudged on out to the more modern European Quarter to the east of the city, home of the EU Commission and the European Parliament. There I found my hotel, the Aloft Brussels Schuman.

The hotel is probably one of the most unique I've ever stayed in, and that was apparent even from the reception area. The Reception desk is circular, and most of the staff were walking around informally anyway, chatting to guests as they went. The Foyer, bar, restaurant, and breakfast area are all open-plan, and there is even a closed off quiet space to the rear for meetings and for guests to do some work. Dogs are welcome at the Aoft Brussels, and there is even a welcoming dog bed for your pooch to rest in while you check in.

The room was clean, minimally appointed, and decorated with unique, locally-themed art works. Mine was a huge mural of Belgian chips, something that I would come to learn are very important here. As I entered the room the TV screen came to life with a nice welcome message with my name on it, and I discovered had my very own pod coffee machine. Which, after an early morning flight, was a very welcome sight.

The room features a walk-in shower area, toilet with sliding door, wash basin area open to the room, and also a safe big enough to accommodate a laptop. In the room proper there was a king sized bed with plenty of pillows, a desk area with phone and light, a short sofa beneath the large window, and also a fridge. Business types (or indeed any normal human alive today) will be happy to learn that he Aloft Brussels Schuman hotel's WiFi was the strongest and most reliable of any hotel I've ever been in. And it was free.

Once settled in the room I headed out into the city. The Schuman area is right in the centre of the European Quarter, so if you're travelling to Brussels for business at the EU, you're laughing. However if you're there to see the old sights of the city you'll first have to walk about a mile or so to do so. There is a Metro station just around the corner from the hotel, named, appropriately, Schuman, but I never bothered with it, enjoying the walk into the city instead. As I mentioned in the film, the EU area is noticeably void of many shops, although there is a handy convenience store right next to the hotel.

The old part of the city is a fascinating mix of the old and the new. I walked by the immense and grand Royal Palace one moment, and through a glass-ceiling shopping mall the next. Everything is crammed in tight, but because the city is largely flat it was easy enough to navigate. The very centre of the city is a maze of tight ancient streets and confusing shortcuts that take you through and under other buildings, so I heartily recommend either a clear and simplified map, or plenty of power on your phone for Google Maps. I used the latter throughout, and never felt like having my expensive smartphone in my hand most of the time was a risk. The city felt like a safe and friendly place all of the time I was there.

Eventually I found myself wandering into the Grand Place. This is the de facto centre of Brussels, and certainly houses some of the city's most charming older buildings. It is a pretty place to be during the day, but at night the square comes alive as people fill the few bars and cafes that line the edge. In fact, the same can be said for the whole of the city, as Brussels at night takes on a livelier feel.

That isn't to say that people are bashing around, going from pub to pub, and being crazy – as in the UK – but rather it felt like night time was Brussels' natural time to shine, and shops and cafes stayed open till late. Again, walking from the centre of the rowdy city and back through the quieter districts to my hotel never felt intimidating.

The Aloft Brussels also came alive at night. As the furniture in the reception-cum-bar area was all modular, the space itself actually changed to accommodate revellers. The bar is open to both guests and non-guests, and some evenings even feature live music. The atmosphere was great, and the cocktails were delicious – something the staff were keen for me to try. Were they trying to get me drunk, I wonder? Well, hotels are pretty sexy places...

The next day, and after enjoying a buffet continental breakfast of fruit, pastries, cold meats, and Belgian waffles, I headed back out into the city, this time to try the Metro. Brussels' Metro system is pretty good, and I never had to wait more than ten minutes for a train. The lines seem to wrap around the centre of the city without travelling directly beneath it – something the main overground line to the airport does. I jumped on at Arts-Loi station to travel on line 6 all the way to Heysel station to visit the Atomium.

I'd only been vaguely aware of what the Atomium was prior to my visit, always thinking of it as that big silver atom thing in Belgium. The structure in real life is pretty striking, being more than 100 metres in height and still possessing a futuristic aesthetic, despite now being 60 years old. Entry was a reasonable 12 Euros, with the visit beginning with a high-speed elevator ride up the central column.

At the top you can enjoy a panoramic view over Brussels and the surrounding area, as well as a sit-down restaurant should you wish. Once you've had enough of the view (which, as someone who isn't from Brussels and didn't really know what I was looking at, wasn't all that long) you descend back down to the ground floor, only to them be immediately ushered back up an escalator. For me, this is where the fun really began as I explored the different spheres and tubes on foot; some requiring stairs to access, other using long escalators through tubes with flashing lights and ominous space-age sounds.

The whole experience was fascinating and truly bizarre, and the Atomiun has to be the strangest building I've ever been in. Fans of unconventional architecture will love it, as will those with a penchant for the sci-fi ideals of the late 1950s.

With the trip almost over I headed back into the city and caught a connecting train back to the airport. Once again the bmi Regional flight was a small plane with a single flight attendant, and once again the journey was complete in just one hour – or half the time it takes to get from York to London on the train, and for less money too. Just saying.

Brussels is a strange place, I must say. It feels like a totally blended city, with half the population speaking French and the other half speaking Dutch. However, every single person I spoke to, be they the hotel staff, waiters in restaurants, or the police (and soldiers!) I asked for directions, all spoke clear and fluent English. It feels like the most appropriate place to have a parliament for a united Europe, as in the course of just two days I felt like I walked around representations of all the member states of the EU - and beyond – in one compact city. It's a fantastic and lively place to spend a long weekend, and both bmi Regional and Aloft Brussels Schuman are great organisations to consider to make it happen.

And find out more about Brussels at https://visit.brussels/en

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