The cheeky statue of a small urchin pissing in Brussels’ historic centre is supposed to embody the city’s ‘irreverent’ nature.
It’s long been the custom for visiting VIPs to donate a costume, dressing the incontinent boy in outfits ranging from military to Mickey Mouse.
But the tradition of pimping the old into something fresh and exciting isn’t restricted to the city’s famous monuments.
A ripple of nervous excitement passed through the crowd waiting outside Brussels’ Palais de Justice every time a tram approached and hearts sunk when they realized it was only the number 12 to humdrum suburbia.
It was not so much the fact that anyone was particularly desperate to go anywhere, but more that they were eager to try the city’s latest fine dining experience – The Tram Experience.
Launched in February 2012, the converted 1960s carriage takes meals on wheels to exciting new levels and is closer to a gleaming spaceship than its former life as a mundane mode of public transport.
Inside the whiter-than-white shuttle to gastronomic galaxies unknown, two-seater tables are squeezed impossibly along each side, with a narrow gangway for the waiters to wobble tentatively along during the course of the restaurant’s two-hour circle around the city’s outskirts.
The funky overhead lighting adds to its sleek, futuristic ambience, while tables with specially fitted plate-shaped and glass-shaped notches ensure that the tram is the only thing moving during your meal.
With a glass of chilled Belgian beer in hand and a delicate looking amuse-bouche placed in front of me waiting to be devoured in one swift move from plate to mouth, we jolted to a start and began our rattling journey to nowhere.
Travelling through areas of grand opulence one moment and shabby deprivation the next, it’s a surreal experience to watch the world pass by as you tuck in to a gourmet three-course meal in what is, effectively, a hermetically sealed bubble of decadence. But, such fun!
The Tram Experience is being trumpeted as one of the highlights of the city’s Year of Gastronomy celebrations, encapsulating its Brusselicious campaign by giving people the opportunity to discover or rediscover the many treasures of Brussels by way of the city’s gastronomy.
Six Belgian twin-star chefs have been commissioned to prepare new versions of traditional Belgian dishes or to offer menus that highlight their own restaurants, with a focus on top-quality local produce and seasonal ingredients.
All food is prepared on the tram by an experienced caterer and menus are changed every two weeks.
But vintage trams aren’t the only Belgian tradition being reinvented in Brussels, with the famous chocolate also being pimped for 21st century tastes.
Godiva and Pierre Marcolini may have the kudos, but master chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud offers connoisseurs a tasty treat with an edge.
Gerbaud, who is fast gaining a reputation as one of the most exciting chocolate makers in Brussels, has been marrying the world’s favorite aphrodisiac with fruits and spices for seven years now.
Inspired by a prolonged stay in China, he discovered the rich realm of Asian tastes and smells and began to coat delicious kumquats with dark chocolate, before experimenting with other delicacies, guided by his expert nose and pallet.
Using the best quality cocoa beans, Gerbaud’s speciality range makes cheaper imitations sold in bulk to less discerning tourists taste like rancid rat droppings.
I was lucky enough to meet the man himself at his bustling shop in Ravenstein Street, opposite the city center’s Fine Arts Palace.
With his wild curly hair, portly figure and ruddy cheeks, he looked every inch the chocolate wizard and I was confident this Willy Wonka had genius running through his veins.
After a tour of his factory, where his products are lovingly handmade, Gerbaud took my tastebuds on a chocolaty tour de force.
Starting with the cheapest, lowest quality, I gradually worked my way around a tray of selected chocolates, from dark-covered apricots to tangy, biting ginger and crunchy, salted cashews, each with its own explosion of both flavour.
At times subtle, other times complex, Gerbaud’s chocolates are more than just guilty pleasures to be gobbled down in handfuls. These precious jewels need to be savoured and enjoyed slowly.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was being taken back to the beginning, almost spitting out the original low-grade chocolate and recoiling in disgust at its bland flavour and vowing never to buy a cheap variety again.
And the secret to why his chocolate is so phenomenal? Gerbaud explains it is because he has completely reduced the amount of sugar used, using 75% cacao.
That and of course the passion, love and energy which he injects into every one of his products.
Longing to linger in Gerbaud’s boutique, complete with coffee and hot chocolate bar, I reluctantly hurried to the till to purchase a bundle of chocolate boxes, painfully aware that my Eurostar train home to hum-drum fish and chips and Kit-Kats in London was due to depart in less than an hour.
Nibbling on the moreish treats on my journey home, I pondered my gastronomic experiences in Brussels, realizing everything I had heard about artery-clogging stodge and gut-expanding booze was only half the story of the city’s gastronomy.
The rest of the tale is every much as modern and innovative as you’d find in culinary Meccas such as Paris and Rome.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but this city steeped in history is proving tradition can be recycled into something fresh, vibrant and original, making Brussels one of the most exciting capitals to visit in Europe.
For more information on Brussels visit www.belgiumtheplaceto.be
Transport and accomodation
GSN recommends the five star Royal Windsor Hotel for both luxury and comfort.
Located moments from the Grand Place, it not only offers all of the city’s historic sights on its doorstep but also stylish comfortable rooms. It has the perfect blend of inviting charm and modern sophistication.
I travelled to Brussels direct from London St Pancras in less than two hours on the silky smooth Eurostar.
Your ticket will take you all the way to the central station, which is a just a few minutes walk from the hotel.
Not only is it a more environmentally friendly choice of travel, the extra baggage allowance and short check-in time means much of the hassle of air travel is mercifully gone.
Your Eurostar ticket will also get you offers at cultural attractions as well as in restaurants.
For full details on travelling by Eurostar, see below:
Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2 hours. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
Eurostar Plus Shopping offers passengers a 10% discount at xandres, one of the leading brands in Belgian fashion in cities across Belgium including Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Knokke, Kortrijk, Namur and Waterloo .
Women who are looking for unique pieces with a trendy twist will find collections and professional advice in a beautiful and inspiring environment. Simply present your Eurostar ticket and foreign passport at the cashdesk in store to receive the discount (within five days from the day of travel).
Eurostar Plus Culture is a unique partnership between Eurostar and some of Europe’s most popular museums and galleries in Brussels, Paris and Lille .
Travellers simply present their Eurostar ticket to take advantage of 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions.