Packing is an art. Walking into Brussels boutique hotel Be Manos, I wished I’d packed a white skin-tight velvet trouser-suit, à la Bianca Jagger, because if Studio 54 were ever planning a relaunch in Belgium, this’d be the after-party venue. Sleek black floors and white walls form the backdrop to the biggest collection of glittery baubles I’ve seen since Elton John was in short trousers… Really, all that’s needed to complete the mood would be some spaced-out Courrèges-clad supermodels draped over the tubular furniture. But, luckily for us, what we found instead were a charming team of black-and-white clad twentysomethings, who turned out to be the staff.
Behind the check-in desk was a vast photo-montage of ‘real’ people (or civilians, as Liz Hurley memorably refers to them), most of them in a state of undress. It seemed a little saucy for Brussels but, then, what did I know about Belgium? I made a deal with myself that I’d be able to name more than three famous Belgians by the end of the weekend. Go on, can you?
As we took the glass-walled lift to our room on the second floor, the characters from the montage greeted us yet again… this time, blown up to life-size on the door of each room. A Miss Universe lookalike beckoned on ours, looking a bit come-hither, and inside there were more photos of her above the bed and in the bathroom in, er, what can only be described as a state of morning-afterness. It was a bit intimidating at first, as if we’d stumbled into someone else’s dirty weekend, but we got used to it, and Mr Smith didn’t seem too distracted later on…
Junior Suite 217 was a huge three-room affair set in an L-shape around a corner, with two big windows overlooking the modernist courtyard. There was a rather masculine black-slate bathroom with shower, huge bath, basin and separate loo (and lashings of Korres products), a vast black leather bed with angel-soft white bed-linen and sliding doors to our own living room. And, for us, the ultimate luxury: absolute silence.
Extraction from the silent space capsule was going to prove difficult, but Mr Smith promised me that the best frites in the world were to be found in Brussels – so I was out of the door like a shot. In less than 15 minutes we had passed through the moody North African district of Les Marolles, and were in what Victor Hugo called ‘the most beautiful square in the world’: La Grand Place.
Culture done for the evening, we continued with Mission Frites, hoping to have some with a beer at an outdoor café. But, no, it would seem that the hip don’t chip in Brussels today, unless with irony. Luckily, we found some masquerading as patatas bravas in Comocomo, a Basque tapas bar with its own sushi-style conveyor belt (go Brussels!). After this fusion experience, and in a blissful carb and Rioja coma, we fell through a trapdoor in time into the Goupil le Fol bar, a slice of Fifties beatnik nostalgia where the jukebox plays only Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, the lighting is low and the owner gives pretty girls chocolates when they leave.
After a good night’s sleep, our lazy Saturday began with a scrummy breakfast in bed in our silent room (Be Manos even turns off the fountain at night) and a walk through chi-chi Sablon’s regular weekend antiques market. By now I was getting quite desperate for some properly unreconstructed, un-hip chips, and so we had a hilariously boozy lunch at an old-style Belgian institution, La Roue d’Or, complete with grumpy waiters, wooden banquettes, surrealist murals and a menu that would empty Noah’s Ark in less than a fortnight.
I don’t know if it was the wine, or possibly the chips, or maybe it was just the feeling of being the youngest couple in the restaurant by about 20 years, but we managed to get ourselves into a giggly flirtatious mess over our moules frites, and ended up shopping for saucy underwear and heading back to our hotel for forty wink winks.
Later that evening, we took up residence on a large silver sofa parked on a sea of shag pile in the Be Manos bar, and I tried their signature cocktail, the Be Lella Femme. Like everything else at Be Manos, it turned out to be delicious and did the job perfectly. The other guests seemed to be a Euro mix of photographers and designery types, and the bar swayed gently rather than rocked. Good-natured laughter filtered out from the restaurant, where late diners lingered, and we sloped off to bed at about 1am feeling quietly content.
The Sunday morning sky dawned blue as a mural above the white minimalist courtyard, and so we donned our fluffy robes and headed to the spa. On our way, we passed through an entirely black room and spied a huge white stuffed ostrich on the wall, as well as trays of apples suspended in help-yourself Perspex sculptures. It felt a bit like disappearing into a Pink Floyd album cover.
Having found the spa, we lay on loungers in the sun and bamboo-filled courtyard, popping in and out of the hamman and sauna. Then, pink and happy, we explored the outdoor areas of the hotel, including the spectacular 360-degree Black Terrace, where we read quietly in the sun on the huge black rattan high-sided sofas until, sadly, it was time to check out.
Packing to go home is another thing altogether: you realise which of your fantasies and expectations were fulfilled, and what surprised you. Jacques Brel, one of Brussels’ most famous sons, said that ‘in a man's life, there are two important dates: his birth and his death. Everything we do in between is not very important.’ I disagree. There are always frites, and comfy beds in silent rooms with the one you love. Be Manos has all of those. And I can name seven famous Belgians now.
Seven famous Belgians
Georges Lemaitre (originator of ‘Big Bang’ theory of cosmology)
Herge – creator of Tintin
Hercule Poirot (not really...)