Last summer, a little email appeared in my inbox inviting me to join a small group of bloggers to participate in the #ParkInnExpress challenge. My first thought was to find out more about what it would entail. (Actually, that was my second thought – my first assumption was that this was spam so I’m very glad I read on before automatically banishing it to the unloved junk folder – pays not to be cynical huh?!)The challenge would involve two weekends away in Europe in pairs or groups of three. Think of it as a treasure hunt meets city tour with cryptic clues guiding us from one tourist attraction to the next, allowing us to explore a city, engage our brains and have a bit of fun all at the same time. How’s that for efficiency? We could walk, cycle, take buses, boats or trains between locations but taxis were not permitted and we had a budget within which to work.
The #ParkInnExpress Challenge, Brussels
For my first challenge, I joined the lovely Jodie from The Little Backpacker for a weekend in Brussels (a city where I had never properly visited before – unless you count two hours in the main square a decade ago). Our clues arrived right at the last-minute, adding to our intrigue and fortunately, weren’t too taxing…although we did end up at an antiques market instead of the intended flea market but that’s by the by.
On a perfectly sunny Saturday (in Brussels that is – London was positively grim), we got over our traumatic 4am alarms to board the Eurostar at London St Pancras and commenced our journey in Brussels’ Grand Place – a crowded but splendid place with stunning ornate architecture, its majestic views enhanced at night when the moonlight competes with its man-made counterparts to illuminate these Gothic fronts.We strolled for about an hour taking in the landscaped gardens, pedestrianised streets and open squares before heading to the quirky Restobieres restaurant where an early lunch awaited us.But not without first stopping off to see the famous Manneken Pis – a statue of a little boy err…urinating. As one of Brussels’ most famous chaps, we knew we’d solved our first clue when we saw the crowds gathered around one small monument!
A touch of traditional Belgian food at Restobieres
With colanders and pans hanging from the ceilings of this cosy and kitsch restaurant, whose distinguishable feature is the use of beer as an ingredient in almost all of its dishes, it was easy to see why it pulls in the crowds. The rustic and eccentric decor slighty reminded me of the iconic Troubadour Cafe, London.
Restobieres serve a selection of piping hot, typically European, hearty meals. I went for the rich and creamy shrimp croquettes to start and tilapia fish as mains and two courses definitely left me too full.
Learning how Belgian Beer is made
Eager to burn off those carbs, we continued our mission by visiting a beer museum; this was really just one small room with some videos, posters and pieces of brewery equipment, which you can glimpse at before taking your seat in the cosy pub to sip a fresh, cold beer. You choose between blonde or dark – this will mean more to you than me since I don’t drink (but much like my experience in a German beer house last year, I still enjoyed the atmosphere inside, although I did get a bit of a death stare when the staff spotted mineral water tarnishing their beer glass!)
The Place St Gery, is where you need to head to find Les Halles Saint Gery, once an indoor arcade market and now a protected location, seemingly rather like a chill-out area with deck chairs, banners documenting its history (sadly for us, not many in English) and a bar at one end.There is little evidence now that would make you realise it had once been a market.
Saving the best till last…
Clue number 6 was a well-chosen final one, allowing us to rest our tired legs and sample a delicious Belgian hot chocolate, which we practically inhaled at Le Comptoir Mathilde, so irresistible was it. You can read more about Brussels’ top chocolatiers here.
By this point, our early start had started to catch up with us so we headed back to the Park Inn Midi by Radisson – our home for the weekend, where we had dinner and of course got onto our social media outlets. You never feel quite as guilty being on your smart phone around bloggers because most of the time, they’re doing it too! Sunday was a free day where we immersed ourselves in Brussels’ markets and climbed inside the metallic spheres of The Atomium.After an exhausting but exciting weekend, the reading on the scales had gone up (oops!) and I wonder if this had been the Belgian waffles we grabbed at the last-minute, desperately afraid that we would be missing out.The next installment of the challenge happens very soon indeed in Lille so I’m eager to see how that fares in comparison and to discover an area of France that’s totally unfamiliar to me. If you have any recommendations for Lille or know of somewhere special that I must try in Brussels in the future, feel free to let me know!
Disclaimer: We were guests of Park Inn Express during our weekend in Brussels but I am an opinioinated little hot-chocolate consumer and all views, good or bad, are entirely my own.