Brussels: What to do and Where to eat

brussels6You wouldn’t think that being Europe’s terrorist heartland would do much for a place’s tourism industry. However, an overhanging threat of being shot does tend to drastically reduce airfares, meaning that, for the penniless traveller, Brussels has become a very attractive destination over the last 12 months. Of course, the city boasts many other pulls; such as an excess of beer, mussels and chocolate, which have long been drawing visitors from all over the globe.

brussels7Dig a little deeper and you will also discover that this small, often overlooked capital, is actually one of Europe’s most interesting cities. Always on the boundary of larger, more powerful nations, Belgium has struggled to find its own identity, something which is woven in to the fabric of its capital city. East of the city centre stands the gleaming facades of the European Parliament, home of democracy and order, and yet Brussels is playful and tongue in cheek; cartoon characters leap out at you from behind corners of smart townhouses. Furthermore, as well as housing a UNESCO world heritage site stuffed with opulent seventeenth century architecture, Brussels is home to some of the worlds “ugliest” buildings, the grotesque, fascinating works of designer Victor Horta. And all of this contradiction exists in a city where everything is within a thirty minute walk away.

 

24 Hours in Brussels:

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Breakfast: Belgian Waffles at Maison Dandoy

Nestled just behind the main square between shops stuffed with tourist junk, Maison Dandoy offers a refreshing alternative to the mass produced, fast-food style waffles that pervade the city. Both their signature soft and crisp recipes are made fresh to order and served in the traditional way, with a sprinkling of brown sugar, or with more elaborate toppings if you so choose. A perfect way to start the day and a great opportunity to walk through the Grande Place when it is not inhabited by scores of tourists.  http://www.maisondandoy.com/en/home/

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AM: Antiques shopping in Marolles

Everyday from 6am, the Place de Jeu Balle is transformed into a treasure trove of bric-a-brac. Pick your way through towers of vintage crockery, antique jewelry, second-hand clothing and broken machinery and, if you spend long enough or look hard enough, you might just find yourself a gem. The locals say that Thursdays and Fridays are the best but honestly it is worth going on any day of the week, more for the spectacle than anything else. The market can be a little overwhelming though so make your escape into the quieter, neighbouring streets all of which are crammed full of fantastic second-hand and antique furniture shops. One of the most impressive of these is Via Antica, a three floor emporium of retro design classics. http://www.belgium-tourism.be/informations/events-bruxelles-marolles-flea-market-on-place-du-jeu-de-balle/en/E/20774.html ; http://viaantica.be/

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Lunch: Pin Pon

Overlooking the flea market, this trendy cafe, popular with locals, serves up Belgian classics like Moules and Fish and Chips, but in a brighter and more interesting atmosphere than the busy tourist hotspots in the town centre. If you get there a little earlier, go for the brunch menu and try the eggs cocotte, their signature dish.  The layout of the restaurant is a little confusing but the food is fresh, simple and delicious. https://www.facebook.com/apero.pinpon/

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PM: Get some culture at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre

If I only have a short time in a city I never choose to spend much time in museums or galleries, I prefer to walk around and really soak in the atmosphere. We were in brussels for 3 days so visited a few places but the Comic Strip Centre definitely stood out. The museum is housed in the old Waucquez warehouse, a masterpiece of art-nouveau design and one Victor Horta’s only surviving industrial buildings. As such, as well as exhibiting the city’s link with comics, the museum highlights Brussels’ place in the history of art-nouveau architecture. The Comic Strip Centre uncovers the history of comics, from ancient cave paintings until the present day and houses some of the earliest ever recordings of animated cartoons. Furthermore it delves into the life of Brussels’ most famous inhabitant Hergé and his creations as well as showcasing the work of new, up and coming cartoonists. If you do have a little more time, the Magritte museum is also worth a visit. https://www.comicscenter.net/en/home

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Dinner: Nuetnigenough

This tiny gem of a restaurant was recommended to us by our airbnb hosts and although it popularity means you may very probably have to wait for a table, you will not regret the wait. The menu is traditional Belgian fare, big hearty meat dishes with rich sauces and simple accompaniments. When we ate here, the rain was coming down in sheets outside and my bratwurst with creamy leek sauce and root vegetable mash was just what I needed. Aside from the food, the atmosphere is convivial, in part because it is such a small place, and the service was excellent. If you can’t get in here for food in the evening it is worth going just for a beer earlier on in the day. This is firstly to enjoy the beautiful building, it has its original art-nouveau facade and this design theme continues to the inside. Also, their beer menu was one of the most interesting I encountered, rather than merely the classic old favourites, they choose to showcase a new generation of Belgian brewers combining Belgium’s brewing legacy with more modern styles and flavours of beer.

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After dinner beers at Fin-de-Siecle

Most of the tourist contingent will head straight to Delirium Cafe to drink themselves into a stupor on 8% beers. Not to say that this Brussels stalwart is not worth a visit but if you fancy a slightly different scene, Fin-de-Siecle provides an antidote to the hoards of lads-on-tour found in most of Brussels’ beer houses. The clientele is mostly made up of the city’s frustratingly cool 20-30s population sipping local beers and enjoying the bar’s delicious and well-priced food. We just went for beers and some nibbles but it is worth remembering that the kitchen is open until 1am if you fancy a midnight snack. The interior is, as the name suggests, shabby, parisian, turn-of-the-century style with mis-matched wooden furniture and vintage posters pasted to the bar. Another bonus is that this bar is just around the corner from the Place Saint-Géry, home some of the city’s best late-night bars, including the former Saint-Géry market hall which now houses an art gallery that becomes a club at night. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fin-de-Siecle/156879724358527

 

Palma de Mallorca: What to do and where to eat.

Palma1I go to Mallorca almost every year to visit ex-pat family members and bask in the Mediterranean sunshine. Palma, the island’s capital, is therefore not unfamiliar to me but I have rarely spent more than a day there. The city’s charm is reminiscent of other major Spanish capitals but on a far smaller scale. The Balearic Islands’ rich history makes for fantastic architecture especially when you escape the Marina’s flashy bars and restaurants and head into the dark maze of alleys that make up the old town.

If planning a summer holiday to Mallorca, Palma is a lovely city for a day or night away from the beach and can add a little variety to your trip. Having said that we did make few mistakes on our trip so here are a few of my Palma Dos and Donts.

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Palma’s Awe Inspiring Cathedral

Do drink Cava everywhere, as in the rest of Spain it is literally as cheap as chips (and sometimes cheaper).

Do check the weather before you go. No city is enjoyable in 40 degree heat as I found out. If a cooler cloudy day is forecast however this is a perfect way to avoid a disappointing day at the beach.

Don’t eat out just anywhere. This city is so crammed with tourists that most restaurants are over priced and mediocre quality, there are very few genuine gems.

Do buy a walking guide before you go. The best way by far to experience this city is on foot and with the right route you can easily visit all the sites in one day.

Do bring a fan. If you are there on a hot day this is indispensable!

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The Gran Cafe

24 Hours in Palma:

Start with Some Art….. Museu Fundacion Juan March: We stumbled upon this little art gallery entirely by chance and were stunned by the quality of their collection. Housed in a beautiful Mallorquin townhouse this gallery showcases the works of some of the islands most famous modern artists, including works by Picasso, Miro and Dali. The lack of entrance fee, unlike the larger Modern Art Museum, makes this a perfect attraction when visiting Palma. http://www.march.es/arte/palma/?l=2

For Lunch… Cappucino Gran Cafe: The stalwart of the burgeoning Cappuccino chain, this central Cafe provides a much needed respite from the hustle of the city. You can chose to eat either inside, in what would have been the entrance hall to this grand townhouse, or outside in a beautiful courtyard . The Gran Cafe has an almost colonial feel about it, with huge ceiling fans cooling the large dining hall and leafy palms intermingling with the tables. The waiting staff are fully dressed with starched white shirts and long black aprons and wealthy patrons enjoy pricy cocktails. The food and drinks are not cheap but if looking for a spot to avoid the midday sun, the surroundings make it worth it. Also portions are huge. The club sandwich in particular is delicious and with a side of chips is more than enough for a lunch for two. A lunch with cocktails costs around €25 a head. http://www.grupocappuccino.com/

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The Cathedral’s Alterpiece

A Historical Afternoon… The Cathedral and the Old Town: Palma’s historical centre is the locus for many of the city’s tourist attractions and its winding streets house various shops, bars and cafes that are well worth exploring. The cathedral itself stands at the centre of this maze of streets overlooking the far side of Palma’s expansive marina and merits a visit simply because of its size and grandeur. The inside is beautiful although somewhat confusingly overdone for my tastes. The jewel-like stained glass seen from the outside is joined inside by frescos, stone carvings, a large altarpiece designed by Gaudi and Miquel Barcelo’s highly modernist reinterpretation of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament. Having said this, the Cathedral remains a beautiful example of fourteenth century architecture and symbol of Mallorca’s rich history and heritage. http://www.catedraldemallorca.info/principal/en

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Taberna Boveda

For Dinner… Taberna Boveda:  This restaurant serves without doubt the best tapas I have ever eaten. This is quite a statement I know but the Mallorqin’s clearly agree with me as this beatifully traditional premises is packed every single night with a variety of punters many of whom are willing to queue throughout the restaurant for a taste of their delicious Spanish fare. This does not mean that your meal feels at all rushed or uncomfortable, the extra people merely add to an already frenetic atmosphere of conversation, laughter and traditional Spanish music. Of course they do mean that to get a good spot reservations are entirely necessary. The food is sensational, their Jamon Croquettes and Padron Peppers are particular recommendations, but this is not any run of the mill tourist tapas, their menu includes octopus in various guises, spicy Mallorqin sausages and fabulous mussels. Their Boteria restaurant which is set back a few streets from the sea front is by far the better option as its atmosphere is more lively and the interior more traditional. The service is excellent and amusing as the eight or so middle-aged waiters joking with each other and their customers are reminiscent of a (more efficient) John Cleese sketch. For good food and a great experience this is definitely the place to eat, and it doesn’t hurt that a bottle of Cava only costs €9! http://www.tabernadelaboveda.com/

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The Wonderful and Bizarre Abaco.

An After Dinner Drink…. Abaco: Abaco is probably Palma’s worst kept secret. If you stumbled upon the large heavy doorway by chance you would think you had discovered a gem of the underworld. In fact, despite its inauspicious entrance, Abaco is known to almost everyone as it features heavily in Mallorca’s guide books. Trip advisor will give you mixed reviews of this museum-cum-cocktail bar, mainly based on its prices, which are not insignificant, but I have still included it here because it is entirely unlike anywhere I have ever been. Open its large wooden doors and you will find yourself in the entrance hall of a large town house, which, unlike Palma’s other Cafes and Galleries, has not been entirely remodelled. The space is adorned with chaise-longs and its walls are hung with antique portraits. These are intermingled with vases of flowers and cascading mounds of fruit at every turn. In the spacious courtyard the bubbling of a fountain can be heard alongside the chirruping of tropical birds. On top of this speakers blast out opera music  from every corner. Think this sounds extra-ordinary, head upstairs to what is, for all intents and purposes, a museum with original furnishings and even a fully-stocked kitchen, throughout which you are at leisure to wander, drink in hand. That drink may have cost you over ten euros but really it is the bizarre, otherworldly experience you are paying for. An experience that in my mind can only be described as a cross between a roman orgy and a national trust house, and if that doesn’t make you want to go I don’t know what will. http://www.bar-abaco.es/contacto

Barcelona What to do and Where to Eat

barcelona1I have just returned from the beautiful sun-splashed streets of Barcelona. Being back in England is, expectedly, depressing yet I am allowing myself to indulge in summer-memories just a little longer by writing a quick review of my time there. I had never visited Barcelona before but friends had lauded it vociferously and I am happy to say my expectations were not disappointed. Aside from its beauty and the architectural gems it houses, Barcelona is best characterised by an easy, laid-back charm. Nothing is hurried, everybody lets the day wash over them, in fact I don’t think I saw a single person in a suit the whole time I was there. This may not be doing wonders for their economy but it does make Barcelona a wonderfully relaxing place to visit!

Barcelona's beautiful beach front.

Barcelona’s beautiful beach front.

In all I found that it was an ideal place for a quick city break. Having such a culturally vibrant city alongside beautiful expansive beaches means you’ll never be bored. After a morning’s sightseeing head down to the beach and soak up some sun before settling down to a sangria in one of the many cafes, perfect!

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Tourist examining Gaudi’s work at Park Guell.

Although I had an amazing time some of the sites were better than others, likewise with the restaurants. See below my Barcelona Dos and Don’ts and top places to visit.

Do drink Cava at every opportunity! it is so cheap even in the most luxurious bars.

Do book in advance for any of the big sites, the queues are huge and the prices are hiked up on the day. (this includes Par Guell which we thought would be free because its a park but no)

Don’t be fooled by cheap tapas deals, they can be really hit and miss. The other food at the restaurant may look nice but often the tapas will be of a much lower standard.

Do go airbnb. This is the first time I have used it and I thought it was fantastic, so much cheaper and you can save fortune by eating in a couple of times.

Do remember that lots of museums and galleries are free on Sundays for a few hours and the first Sunday of each month. The queues are often long but move quickly and its worth it for the money you save. Also a few places will offer you free entry with a student card which is worth remembering.

Don’t ever buy drinks at the cafes by the beach. As expected the are ludicrously over priced. We paid €9 for a beer a fanta and a bag of crisps!

 

Places Not to Miss

Skateboarders outside macba

macba: This is Barcelona’s modern art museum, the building is amazingly beautiful and when I visited the exhibits were also fantastic. They had a feature on the ground floor in which famous works are reconstructed so that the public can interact with them in a new, multi-sensory way which I thought was fascinating. Also this is great place to relax for a few minutes if you need to get out of the sun, their foyer is bright and cool, members of the public are encouraged to stay and use the wifi. All in all it is well worth a visit.

Mount Tibidabo: This is a rest place to visit for an afternoon out, it looks really far way on a ma but the journey is actually pretty quick. Take the old-fashioned tram on the way up but its expensive so I would advise walking down. At the top the views are breath-taking. The cathedral is stunning and well-with a visit. We didn’t bother to pay for the theme park but it looked pretty fun although not necessarily worth €25.

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Mount Tibidabo

Pipa Social Club: This not-so-secret secret drinking den remains a great place to while away an evening. Located in a third floor flat in the place real, just finding the place is an adventure. Once you are there you will find good value drinks in a fantastic location. The music was great, there was a live jazz band when we were there. Aside from anything else it is just unbelievably cool. A very good attempt at the somewhat overdone prohibition theme bar. http://www.bpipaclub.com

Marsella Bar: This is one of the oldest surviving bars in Barcelona and supposedly has played host to Hemmingway and Picasso. Alas debauchery and intellectual debate are not necessarily on the menu but this remains a popular spot with locals and tourists alike. It gets going after midnight and is definitely worth a visit although, be warned, it is famed for its absinthe. http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g187497-d244947-Reviews-Marsella-Barcelona_Catalonia.html

Boqueria Market: If you ave time to have to visit this amazing market, even if you are not looking to buy. Despite the throng of tourists gathered by the gate, there remains a huge amount of great quality cheap food on offer. Once you have fought your way through the tourists, make your way to the centre which is a huge fish market. You can buy anything from whole tunas to lobsters and crayfish all fresh and all fantastically well priced. I bought live clams for only £10 a kilo and huge prawns only costing around 10p each!!!

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A fish stall at Boqueria Market.

El Jardi: This stunning restaurant just off Las Ramblas does good value food in beautiful surroundings. The service was not brilliant but the location is lovely and a great alternative to the busy, touristy tapas bars that surround it. http://www.eljardibarcelona.es

Bo Restaurant (Gracia): The neighbourhood of Gracia is well worth a visit even if you don’t plan on eating here. There are a multitude of shops, bars and restaurants yet the area is slightly calmer than others. Unfortunately when we visited, on a sunday, everything was shut and we stumbled on this restaurant just as we were begging to give up hope. It is situated in a beautiful square, the surroundings are quieter than similar places in the gothic quarter and the food was fantastic. We had a few tapas ad some paella and the bill only came to around €40 for 2. This is a perfect place for a pond lunch after a busy morning’s sightseeing. http://borestaurant.com

Restaurant Fonda España: Again very close to the touristy tapas bars of Las Ramblas this hotel restaurant is miles away in terms of quality. It was hugely busy when we visited but it was a Monday and the beautiful surroundings more than made up for the slight lack of atmosphere. The dining room is a stunning example of modernist design. The food was fantastic and good value, we paid €27 each for their 3 course weekly set-menu, this also includes a glass of wine each. The service was also excellent. I would throughly recommend this if you are looking for a special meal one night. http://www.hotelespanya.com/en/restaurante-fonda-espana-1/