Katy Wheeler discovers there’s more to Belgium than meets the eye on a trip to the capital of Europe.
The sweet smell of chocolate fills the air, the spring sunshine dapples intricate buildings that have witnessed centuries of history as a quart of beer, almost as big as me, was served to our open-air table.
I need only mention the fact that we were also dunking our chips or frites (never commit the cardinal sin of referring to them as French fries here) into large pots of mayonnaise for you to realise I’m in Brussels.
More accustomed to being in the news for being the home of the European Commission than its holiday attractions, Brussels doesn’t immediately spring to mind when contemplating a European city break – it’s often overshadowed by continental cousins Barcelona, Paris and Prague – but it should.
A new flight from Newcastle to the city dubbed ‘the capital of Europe’ means it’s easier than ever to soak up its delights. And it’s not all politics – there’s plenty of places to play in this colourful capital.
Even meandering through its lively streets peppered with poster-style street art, quirky independent boutiques and chocolatiers and beers shops galore is a pleasure.
But, for a more detailed experience, it’s advisable to book a nibbling tour.
Guides will walk you to the points of interest while explaining the country’s chequered past, its periods of occupation, its passion for the arts and today’s pride in being at the heart of the European Union. Along the way, you get to feast on sweet treats, which are to Belgium what bread is to butter.
And no trip to this low country is complete without a visit to the world-famous Manneken Pis, which translates as little man pee.
Little he certainly is – such is this wee fella’s fame that I expected him to be a grandiose bronze statue towering over a fountain. He is, in fact, no bigger than a large doll who tinkles into a basin below.
But size isn’t everything and he’s still a charming stop-off point as you make your way through the surrounding winding streets.
After all that eating and walking, you’ll be in need of more food. The Grand Place is a magnet for tourists, but deservedly so.
One of Belgium’s most memorable landmarks, it’s a stunning architectural ode to the country’s chequered history, an open square surrounded by restaurants carved into grande baroque buildings including the town hall and guildhalls.
It’s fascinating to learn more about this area, how it was once the base for the Nazis in Belgium, with the resistance setting up a base opposite, as they figured the last place the Fuhrer’s henchmen would look for them would be under their very nose.
There are expensive restaurants to luxuriate in here, but also more reasonably-priced cafes where you can sit outside and watch the world go by, while quaffing on a Belgian beer, of course.
But make sure it’s served in the glass made for that flavour if you want the authentic experience.
I could have sat here all day, watching the hustle and bustle of the world go by, but we had a train to catch. Next stop: Antwerp.
Belgium’s second biggest city is an easy train ride from the capital, around 40 minutes.
It has a more intimate feel than Brussels, while still retaining that rich mix of historic architecture, unusual restaurants and shops with flair.
Antwerp is perhaps Belgium’s most fashion-forward city, which has inspired Belgian fashion leaders such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Dries Van Noten.
As such, you’ll find an eclectic mix of fashion and jewellery boutiques which sell items that are made to make a statement.
This passion for artistic expression can be traced back through the city’s centuries and a particular highlight of my trip was a visit to the house of Antwerp’s most famous son, Peter Paul Rubens.
The celebrated Flemish baroque painter ran a large studio in Antwerp that produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe.
The house he bought with his wife in 1610 still remains to this day and is a fascinating building which stands as a stunning backdrop to display his works.Some of his greatest pieces, such as his Raising of the Cross, is one in a host of masterpieces on display at the nearby Antwerp Cathedral.
It’s worth booking a tour guide to show you around this enchanting landmark. Ours explained the symbolism behind the pieces which had us looking at the paintings in a whole new light.
Much like the rest of the weekend, this was Belgium at its best.
Bmi regional operates twice-daily flights, Monday to Friday and on a Sunday afternoon from Newcastle International Airport to Brussels in just 75 minutes, with one-way fares starting from £80pp including taxes, 20kg hold luggage, full in-flight bar service and snacks. Bmi regional operates more than 300 scheduled flights each week across a network of 20 destinations in eight European countries with an 18-strong all-jet fleet.
•For further information visit www.bmiregional.com
•For more information about Brussels and Antwerp visit www.visitflanders.co.uk
•For more information about Newcastle International Airport visit www.newcastleairport.com