I Am My Own Demographic: Pick Of The Year 2012
Rising Monkey 2012 Part 3: Naha, Okinawa

MOSTLY FILM: Stupid Sexy Flanders

Tree 2.0. THEY ACTUALLY SAID THAT. http://visitbrussels.be/bitc/BE_en/minisite_winterwonders/new-lighting.doThose of you who've been cyberstalking The Belated Birthday Girl and me via this site will be aware that after a short run of Christmasses spent in exotic locations, we stayed at home for the ones in 2010 and 2011. Partly as a cost-cutting measure, partly to see if we could do it without going totally mental. It was a success on both counts, but for 2012 we thought it was time to let someone else cook Christmas dinner for us again.

Brussels has been on the cards as a possible destination for a while now: when we passed through its Christmas market at high speed in 2007 and 2008, it made us keen to spend a bit more time there. In the planning, this expanded into an eight-night, four-city tour of Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent. Today on Mostly Film, you can read about part of what we did in Monoglot Movie Club: Stupid Sexy Flanders, the latest chapter in my ongoing experiment to bamboozle myself with unsubtitled foreign movies. But if you want to find out about the bits of our holiday that weren't spent in the Actor's Studio, UGC De Brouckère or Lumière, then you'll find those right here.

Technically, the whole trip was driven by the existence of the Lonely Planet Encounter guidebook to Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent - which, coincidentally, was superceded only last month by a new edition that only covers the first two. A big mistake, I think: all four cities are very different, and each one has its own highlights worth mentioning.

Brussels was our base for the first four days of our visit, including Christmas Day itself - we felt that we had more chance of finding things to do on the day in the capital than anywhere else, and I suspect (despite a lack of firm evidence either way) that we were right. We stayed in the northern part of town at Hotel Siru, which for all the boutique quirks in its design was basically a business hotel - so we got a good cheap deal for over the quiet Christmas period. Sadly the deal didn't include the overpriced breakfast, confusingly offered at the Hotel des Colonies next door, but cheap alternatives like Exki were readily available within walking distance (except on Christmas morning).

While in Bruges, we stayed at the Hotel de Goezeput, a ten-minute walk along cobbled streets from the station. When you've got a suitcase with hard wheels on it, you become deafeningly aware of just how far that walk is. But it's probably the furthest you'll have to walk during your stay: the city is as tightly compressed as Brendan Gleeson is by the end of In Bruges, and the Goezeput is as well placed as anywhere else, with a fine breakfast buffet thrown in.

The other city we spent the night in was Ghent, at the rather lovely Hotel Gravensteen. It's literally over the road from the castle of the same name, and easily reached from the gorgeous station by the rather good tram service. The Gravensteen's obviously expanded over the years, and our room was as far away from reception as you could get, in a newly converted loft at the top of an annex building. Still very comfortable, though, and at the centre of absolutely everything. Once again, breakfast was extra, and a terrifying €17 extra at that: but alternatives exist, notably a series of excellent breakfast options at Brooderie just down the road.

As for Antwerp, we relegated that to a simple daytrip, so I can't give you any hotel recommendations for that one. What I will say is that for Antwerp and Ghent, the maps in that Lonely Planet guide simply aren't detailed enough for the job: I had to fall back on my phone's satnav a couple of times to navigate our way around the more fiddly backstreets. Antwerp's tram system (run, like Ghent's, by De Lijn) just about does the job, but you'd be advised to get a couple of transport maps along with your street map, rather than just rely on the inadequate street signage like we did.

As you've probably deduced from the frequent use of the word 'station' above, this was another one of our rail-based adventures: Eurostar to get us across the channel, and Belgian Railways for all the internal travel. BR - ooh, it feels odd typing that - was one of the few major European networks that we failed to use in 2007, but on this evidence they seemed just fine: some great Christmas inter-city deals where a return ticket cost less than the price of a standard single, and possibly the best millinery of any continental train service. (I didn't make that video over there, but I wholeheartedly endorse its message.)

Once you're in Brussels, it's down to STIB or MVIB to get you from place to place, depending on whether you're speaking French or Dutch that day. The city's metro and tram service is actually pretty easy to negotiate just using the information on the streets: if you know you're going to be making at least three journeys in one day, the JUMP ticket is fine value at €6, as it allows you to hop onto any item of public transport that takes your fancy until 2am the next morning.

The centrepiece of Brussels' Christmas celebrations is the Winter Pret festival (aka Plaisirs d'Hiver or Winter Wonders), which we stumbled across on our 2007 and 2008 flying visits. The structure seems to change very little from year to year: a parade of Christmas markets starting at the Bourse, and weaving through the city to the icerink in St Catherine's. Along the way you have miscellaneous side attractions, including the gloriously decorated carousels and the pavilion dedicated to a foreign sponsor (the Balkans this year). As ever, Electrabel provided the big audio-visual jawdropper at the centre of Grand Place, a stylised 25m electronic tree that played a dubstep version of Carol Of The Bells on an hourly basis. (People thought I was kidding when I tweeted that on Christmas morning, but the sight of Brussels Town Hall suddenly going WUB is one I'm not likely to forget in a hurry.)

Apart from Winter Pret, Brussels is much like any other continental European city when it comes to Christmas: it's all about the Eve rather than the Day itself. The main period when the city shuts for celebration is from the early evening of the 24th to around noon on the 25th. We wandered out onto the streets on Christmas morning (one of my presents was a new umbrella, and it turned out to be a good test): Brussels was a ghost town at that time, with even the traffic lights just set to a continuous flashing amber as there wasn't enough traffic to be worth controlling. The city started coming to life again in the early afternoon, and by the evening it was like any other day of the week, with the UGC De Brouckère positively rammed with cinemagoing punters. (For stay-at-home types, the Christmas night movie on Belgian TV turned out to be Die Hard, which is just my kind of festive.)

We left Brussels on the morning of the 26th, so we only really got to see the Christmas celebrations of the other cities after the fact. Bruges had a good market just outside the Belfort, and we had a fine tartiflette/prawn/doughnut/chocolate lunch obtained by hopping between the stalls: but there's always that nagging feeling that Bruges exists solely as a tourist destination, and has no industry other than tourism, like a slightly less damp Venice. By contrast, Antwerp is a proper working city (with the best tree of our holiday discovered in its old town), while Ghent gets the balance of commerce and history pretty much spot on, only losing points for putting lightrope reindeer in almost every public square, leading to endless confusion when you try to use them as a navigational landmark.

Leaving some space on the page here for The Belated Birthday Girl's waffle.No analysis of a Belgian holiday would be complete without a mention of the country's beer, chocolate, waffles and so on. That would be The Belated Birthday Girl's job, so here she is.

For a traditionally Belgian start to proceedings, t'Kapiteintje served us well, serving up mussels for me and horse steak for Spank, accompanied by decent frites and a tasty Christmas beer. The Christmas markets also provide plenty of eating and drinking options, and we sampled mulled wine, hot beer, and frites (not at the same time). But the big meals were provided on Christmas Eve by Aux Armes de Bruxelles, and Christmas Day by Atrium at the Radisson Blu Royal.

Aux Armes de Bruxelles was a traditional and festive choice, a cut above most of the touristy restaurants down Rue des Bouchers, although I am sure those others would also be decent options if you didn't have a booking. My starter of scallop flan was fine, although more or larger scallops would have improved it, but my main of lobster waterzooi was tasty and satisfying, and ticked the traditional and festive boxes. Spank ate from the set menu, with a rich fish soup, perfectly cooked duck breast and a vanilla creme brulee for dessert (whch I helped him with a bit!). We also enjoyed watching other people's crepes suzette get spectacularly flambeed near to where we were sat.

Aux Armes seemed full or thereabouts on Christmas Eve, mostly with people who had made reservations. By contrast, Atrium was almost empty on Christmas Day lunch. But the space was coolly chic, with a koi carp pool and lots of greenery, and made a lovely setting. And the food was terrific. Particularly memorable was my starter - a skewer of big, juicy scallops and a delicate citrussy yuzu broth. Spank began with puff pastry and goat cheese, which was more layered and terrine-like than expected from the English description. For the mains, I went for the cod with small shrimps and shrimp coulis, while Spank felt unable to resist the lure of the cuckoo, stuffed with fois gras and served with a Hoegaarden mousseline. He reported that cuckoo "tastes like chicken". Thankfully the portion sizes left room for dessert, as my zabaglione made with kriek beer and served with a speculoos ice cream was astonishing. Meanwhile Spank's salty caramel bavarois was also very good. Serving up wonderful food in pleasant surroundings, Atrium turned out to be an excellent choice for Christmas Day lunch.

But without a doubt our favourite restaurant and meal of the trip was Den Dyver in Bruges, serving fine food made using beer as a cooking ingredient. The menu is served in 2 or 3 courses, with 6 choices at each course, and a selection of Belgian beers chosen to complement each specific dish. My starter of Salmon Gin and Tonic style - a roll of gravadlax-like cured salmon - was accompanied by the crisp and fresh Witkap Pater Stimulo, while Spank's pork served 3 ways - croquette, pork cheek and pate - came with Brugse Zot Bruin, a tasty dubbel from the local Half Moon brewery we had visited earlier in the day. For the main courses, my Dory baked in salt was wonderfully complemented by the floral Tonglero Prior, a trippel style, and Spank had a Gouden Carolus Ambrio, a dark amber ale, to accompany his duck risotto. Finally, I had a zingy Gageleer to match my citrussy deep fried snowballs, while a glass of Luxurio Zeven Zonden nicely balanced Spank's Dame Blanche of ice-cream, chocolate and cream. All the food was excellent, all the beers distinctive and well suited to the course each accompanied.

"Brussels Waffles" aren't actually from Brussels: the original and best place to have one is Etablissement Max in Ghent, where they were invented. To be honest, it was partly from a sense of obligation that I wanted to have a waffle at Max, but it turned out to be a quite wonderful thing, and I am very glad I did. I chose the Wafel Maison, which consisted of the lightest waffle imaginable, crisp on the outside and delicious and fluffy on the inside, topped with a selection of 9 different fruits, grand marnier, and whipped cream. Spank went for the banana and chocolate, which had a whole banana and a boat of chocolate sauce with it. The waffles look huge, but they are so light that they are just the perfect size. It is said that locals never have such fancy toppings, and will generally have them just dusted with icing sugar, and that is how the woman sat at the table next to us had hers. But whatever the toppings, the waffles at Max have to be sampled if you are ever in Ghent.

There seem to be a lot of good places to eat in Ghent, but many of them really do need to be booked in advance. But thankfully Belga Queen (which also has a branch in Brussels) was large enough to be able to accept walk-ins. Located in one of the historic buildings by a canal, inside the restaurant is modern and elegant, lit with glowing spheres which change colour. The food is also modern and elegant with traditional origins. Spank started with scallops, which came with cream of Ganda ham, so I was more than happy to go for the snow crab with salad of white cabbage: both were excellent. For the mains, Spank went for a traditional Flemish dish of three huge meatballs in sauce (which cost less than his starter), and I went for the sole meuniere. Both mains were also very good. The choice of beers was limited and slightly disappointing, but not everywhere can be Den Dyver. Everything else was lovely about the place, and made for a very good final night's meal.

We had to go back to Brussels to get the train home, and we had a decent lunch there at brasserie Le Varietes in the Flagey building in Ixelles. We chose it as much for the fabulous art deco interior as anything else, but the food was also good, with Spank finally getting a steak frites, and me having a ravioli with the richest truffle sauce I can think of. And that really did make for a fitting final proper meal of the trip.

This is what happens when you take a picture of the Atomium on your cameraphone, but accidentally tilt it downwards halfway through the exposure.Back to me again for a quick roundup of the main sights to be seen in each city, if you're looking for things to do that don't involve stuffing your face. Brussels, for example, has a whole museum quarter that would take you ages to explore, which we carelessly only allocated half a day for. In that time, we managed a sandwich and a quick run around the free displays of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, modishly rebranded as Bozar: a leisurely stroll around the terrific collection of old musical instruments at MIM, featuring the best use of an audio guide I've ever encountered in a museum: and a slightly accelerated trot through the Magritte Museum in its last hour before its Christmas break, only marred by the lack of English translations for the various Surrealist manifesti and pamphlets on show.

A little further out of town, you can take the tram out to Heysel, which is more than just a football stadium with a tragic past. For a start, that's where you can find the Atomium, the big shiny atomic structure built for the 1958 World's Fair and still a major symbol of Brussels to this day. It looks great from the outside, and has great views of the surrounding area from inside, along with interesting exhibits on the history and construction of the building as well as a general celebration of Belgian design. Just next door is Mini-Europe, a delightfully cheesy continent-sized model village, allowing for all sorts of perspective defying photo opportunities such as the Houses of Parliament with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The exhibition at the end of Mini-Europe has a fairly aggressive pro-EU agenda running through it, but I guess that's Brussels for you.

Bruges isn't just about the beer, although it did seem that way during the two days we spent there. The view from the top of the Belfort is worth the hellish climb, although physical exertion is only really an issue at the start, gradually overtaken by the perilous steepness of the steps as you go further up. And the Groeningemuseum has a fascinating collection once you get past the opening hall of multiple Days Of Judgment, with Gustave Van de Woestyne's stylised Last Supper an obvious highlight. But yeah, beer is a large part of it. It certainly was on the day that started with our tour round the Halve Maan Brewery, featuring a hilariously deadpan guide. "The door here is very low, please take care, do not damage the building." That same day ended with far too much beer at the magnificent Brugs Beertje, where the same guide could be spotted propping up the bar, which shows an admirable dedication to her job.

The day after that boozocalypse was partly spent in Antwerp, where The BBG can confirm that the burgers in the UFO Cafe are a perfect hangover cure. UFO is attached to the FotoMuseum, whose permanent collection of photographs through the ages is all well and good, but was completely overshadowed by two temporary exhibits. Lucie & Simon's family snapshots with implied narratives are fascinating to look at, and their film installation Silent World is something else again, a series of shots of iconic locations inhabited by solitary, lost-looking people. Meanwhile, Weegee: Murder Is My Business is a fine introduction to the American tabloid photographer who specialised in the seamier side of New York life, meaning there are a lot of pictures of bullet-riddled gangsters here. But there's also a pitch-black surreal wit, best seen in the stunning shot of a burning hotdog factory that takes time to revel in the company's advertising tagline.

If I had to choose, I think that Ghent is my favourite city of the four we visited. There's plenty to delight the eye, starting as early as Gent-Sint-Pieters station, celebrating its centenary and looking damn good at 100 years old. Gravensteen Castle is an ancient castle in the Japanese style (i.e. it was rebuilt from scratch in the late 19th century and isn't really ancient at all), but there's plenty of good stuff to see inside there, including a suitably queasy museum of torture implements. More contemporary eye candy is on offer at the Design Museum, with a good study of the work of bendy-chest-of-drawers guy Shiro Kuramata, and the quirky use of Playmobil figures hiding amongst the permanent displays.

But the design highlight of our week came on the final day, when we returned to Brussels a few hours before our train home. We'd already seen a couple of buildings designed by the legendary architect Victor Horta, so a quick trip to the Horta Museum seemed like a fun little thing to wrap up the holiday. Here's what the website and guidebook don't tell you: everyone in Brussels has had the same idea as you. The museum is basically a small family house opened to the public, and they can only allow 45 people into it at a time: when we got there, there was literally a queue around the block. It took 80 minutes of queueing for a 45 minute visit, but the house and its contents are so utterly exquisite it's completely worth the wait. Go, but go prepared.

Apologies to everyone at Mostly Film for making this 'bonus content' piece over twice the length of the original it was meant to be the bonus for. But I've got one last thing to add at the request of The BBG, who objects to my description of Brussels sprouts as 'bollocky'. Try using her favourite Brussels recipe to ensure that the thought of testicles stays as far from your mind as possible during Christmas dinner. It certainly did from mine. Being a monkey, and all.


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