Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Little Art Break in Brussels

Part of the Grand Place in Brussels
pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

How many places are two hours by train from central London? Well quite a lot of southern and central and eastern England - but not Cornwall or Yorkshire or my home area of north west England. However I've still not quite got used to thinking about where I can now get to on the continent in two hours.

I was recently thinking about days out with "he who must not be bored while I sketch" and my eye was caught by an advert for the Eurostar Little Break Big Difference and I started looking at the website to see where I could get to and how much the tickets cost.

I was seriously disconcerted when I got an email 20 minutes later inviting me to go on a little break in Brussels via a Eurostar Little Break with a group of fellow art bloggers. Apparently I am (I quote) "a well respected and reputable art blogger". This bit was just surprising rather than disconcerting! ;)

It turned out it was complete coincidence at one level and two examples of the same marketing campaign at another. Eurostar had engaged a communications agency called we are social to engage bloggers and others using social media sites in what a difference a little break can be. I'm being completely up front about this as I didn't have to pay a bean for the trip - apart from the £15 taxi fare when I managed to sleep through two alarms and woke up with 35 minutes to get from my bed to St Pancras! (You guessed right - I made it! I also managed to brush my teeth before leaving but my hair brush came too)

Anyway, this post is about my Brussels Art & Culture Day Trip along with a group of other art and design bloggers.

[2018: Updated to remove dead links]


We took the 7.53 Eurostar from London St Pancras which takes 2 hours and gets into Brussels at just before 11am (after you've added on an hour for the time difference). You can get earlier trains with the 6.59 being the cheapest.

Melina and Mo on the Eurostar
pen and ink and coloured pencils in Moleskine sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

We returned on a train leaving just before 8pm from Brussels Midi, Eurostar's station near the centre of Brussels and got back about 9.50 local time. So after allowing for travel to and from the station and checking in that gave us just under 8 hours in Brussels. That's a decent amount of time to see a fair bit of whatever interests you.

Try out different combinations of times out and return to see what's the best deal you can get. I've taken a long hard look at the fares and it looks like it's possible to travel there and back very cheaply but you'd probably need to stay a night to take advantage of the cheapest fares. I didn't find their website very friendly as to their current £59 return. The thing that's so odd is that the campaign is about "Little Break , Big Difference" and yet there's no part of the website which seems to spell out what are the current deals are for different destinations. Every time I clicked the icon on the website it wanted to take me to Paris!

Tips for taking a break in Brussels
Going with a group of people is rather different from going on your own. My itinerary would have been quite different if left to my own devices and I'd be writing about different aspects of Brussels - however let's look at what I learned.

Just because it's a foreign country don't get too ambitious! Check out things to see/do in advance and stay in one area. We spent a little bit too much time on the Metro for my liking. It's a really good system but there's no English on the signposting and you can spend a lot of time working out where to go and walking long distances inside and underground.

I'd highly recommend researching Brussels using the Brussels tourist website and then picking an area which has the most to offer for your particular interests and tastes. Use the Metro to get there and then walk around for the rest of the day.

Wear shoes for lots of walking
- It's really easy to cover large parts of the central area very quickly just by walking. However do make sure you have trainers with nice thick support for your soles as there's lots and lots of cobbled streets. Don't be fooled by the cobbles either. We found ourselves wandering around the Place Royale thinking it was a pedestrian area before we realised all those cobbles were actually a road and there were cars bearing down on us!

I noticed that the tourist website has some MP3 guides for various walks which can be downloaded in advance.

Get to the museums early
- We visited the brand new Magritte Museum in the morning (read my review here - Exhibition review: Magritte at the Magritte Museum) and it was busy. I returned to the area in the afternoon and saw people queuing out the door to get in and later still 'tickets sold out' signs.

Fortunately several of the art museums are grouped together around the Place Royale. Don't assume their opening hours are the same as at home - I got caught out by there being no admissions after 4.30.

Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts
on the Rue de la Regence
(Palais de Justice in the distance)

Here are just a few of the things you can see all year round:
Remember also to make time for the museum bookshop. I went there first and lingered a little too long. However when your first love is art books...........

Check out the summer events - for people who like to take their holidays in town there is Bruxelles les Bains (Brussels on Sea) - complete with sand by the canal - in the port area of Brussels. We went there for lunch and chose a Peruvian BBQ from the amazing number of food stalls.

Lunch at Bruxelles Les Bains
pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

There's also the Brussels Summer Festival which seems to take over the grand buildings, squares and parks of Brussels. It happens each year and the programme spans hip hop, folk, reggae and electronic music, street performances, stand-up comedy and kids' entertainment. Those staying overnight can enjoy the concerts which seem to start around 8 or 9pm each night - and you can see scenes and hear music from these on the official website for the Summer Festival. I had it playing in the background while I did my last minute website search on saturday night!

However, it's loud and those who are not fans of loud music might like to avoid the city while the festival is on!

Focus on what's unique to the place
- My personal preference is to always spend time on the things which are unique to that particular place - like in the art museums - and then grab a sandwich or bite to eat in their cafe.

While it was interesting to see the beach area they've developed (see above), it really could have been any city in Europe. I also wasn't particularly enamoured with the food on offer but then I'm a bit of a foodie and probably a bit pickier than most people.

I like to eat food associated with the place - preferably from places which aren't targeting tourists - and my aim is always to eat one new thing that I've never had before every time I go abroad! (I've some fond memories of waterzoii which I had on a previous visit to Brussels). This time I got to sample cherry beer which was a definite first for me.

Mehrdad and David at the Cafe Leon
pen and ink and coloured pencils in Moleskine sketchbook
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The art which is here all year round is what I always focus on first. However I also very much enjoy studying the local architecture - and Brussels has a lot to offer from that perspective. The Grand Place has some simply stunning architecture from the seventeenth century and the area in the centre is very old. There are also some excellent examples of Art Nouveau architecture. The link lists the various hotels and other buildings in Brussels which are listed as great examples of art nouveau designed by Victor Horta.

An Art Nouveau Chocolate shop and an Art Nouveau Museum (of Musical Instruments)
all photos copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I didn't have much time for sketching but now have a better idea where I might go. I did manage a quick sketch sat in the Grand Place at the end of the afternoon. I decided I needed to rise to the challenge of all those buildings and all that gilt!

I've also done a Flickr set - see Brussels 15th August 2009. I hasten to add that not one bit of chocolate passed my lips however I did have a small break from the diet to try out the local beer - which is very, very good!

Meet new people! I have to say though that one of the best bits about our trip was meeting up with a range of art and design bloggers who I might otherwise have never come across. I picked up a few tips during the day - for which many thanks.

Here are the people who came on the trip or we met there.
  • Alex from 30gms/ Fibre Design - http://30gms.com/
  • Mehrdad from Aref Adbi - http://www.aref-adib.com/
  • Mark and Tom from UK Street Art - http://www.ukstreetart.co.uk/
  • Radim from Brand Nu - http://www.brandnu.co.uk/
  • Gordon from Middleboop - http://middleboop.blogspot.com/
  • Mo from Fresh Eyes On London - http://aglimpseoflondon.blogspot.com/
  • David from David the Designer - http://davidthedesigner.typepad.com/
  • Lux and Jourik from Happy Famous Artists - http://www.happyfamousartists.blogspot.com/
A French phrase book is probably a good idea for those who don't speak French well as there is very little English used in the city despite it being one of the HQ cities for the European union.

Thanks again to Sarah and Violette and Melina for looking after us so well, staying calm when I fell over (again!) and to Eurostar for sponsoring the trip.



  1. I'm exhausted from just reading what you covered in one day, Katherine. Waking late on such a day is my nightmare! Well done for making the train.

    Lots of lovely links to follow as usual, thank you and congratulations for managing a sketch or two.

  2. What a wonderful post. It's the best magazine article with all of the info, links and your painting as an additional bonus.

  3. Thanks Pat and Robyn. These posts take a little longer to do when including all the links but I always try to write what I'd like to read!

  4. Great post!
    I also love the sketch you did of Me and David.

  5. I always read it in old books to sketch when you travel, hardly see any in modern time except one couple in Hanoi of which intrigues me. But to see it being posted... wow! makes me feel I should try what you did unfortunately I dont draw as well as you...sigh... but love you noytes and sketch. Will keep reading your post.

    PS: Been to Brussel but never seen it from your angle before. Well done!


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