Danish detour

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Heather Neil didn't quite make it Copenhagen, but Brussel proved a diverting substitute.

I was going to tell you about Copenhagen. I'd brushed up my one word of Danish - smorrebrod - learned about the seasonal delights of the Tivoli Gardens (firework displays three times a week) and planned to check that the Little Mermaid's head was still there. I know how long it takes to get to Elsinore and that taxi drivers don't expect tips. All useful, but untested, information.

Travel journalism is not a hot-bed of corruption. (Or if it is I've never benefited from it.) But I was given two free air tickets for Copenhagen by Virgin Express on the understanding that the company would get a mention. There was a slight snag: the return fare may be only Pounds 101, but you have to change planes in Brussels. Undaunted, my just-post-A-level companion and I set off from home at 4.45am to catch the 6.50 flight from Heathrow. As we took off, I realised I'd forgotten to take out insurance cover - but what could go wrong in a couple of days? Forty minutes later we arrived in Brussels without a hitch. And that was the end of normality.

Our connecting flight was delayed by two hours, then another, and I mentally crossed possibilities off my schedule. Time passed slowly. "We could try on all the sunglasses and then decide we don't want any," said the post-A-level student helpfully. We photographed each other next to a display of outrageously expensive chocolates and first began to think about lunch at 8.15am GMT. The student ate an "English" breakfast which included ham skewered with a toothpick and spicy sausages.

At last, four hours after our arrival, we were on a packed plane, all anticipation once again. The familiar rush down the runway, the hold-your-breath-we'll-be-airborne-in-a-minute sensations were followed by . . . a juddering full stop. Aborted take-off. Soon, there was a man with his head in our engine while we sweltered in our seats. Safety instruction cards became fans. "Apologies," said the captain, "but your flight is cancelled. Virgin Express ground staff will be pleased to help you."

The style on the ground wasn't quite so emollient. "Do you want your money back or a flight tomorrow?" But we only had one day and I needed material for a piece about a Pounds 100 holiday. Eventually, we were offered a hotel for the night, courtesy of Virgin. I admit to playing the journalist card; hotels are not provided as a rule in these circumstances.

Suddenly - well, it was early evening - we were speeding into Brussels in a taxi. Mental check: what does Brussels mean to me? Sprouts, Euro-legislation, lace, chocolate, and the "rude" statue, Manneken Pis.

The hotel, the President WTC, cheered us up no end: a smart, modern, five-star establishment with friendly staff, near the World Trade Centre. Tourist duty would have to wait until tomorrow; this was a time for hot baths and a good dinner.

On the receptionist's advice, we set off for the Rue de Bouchers, stopping on the way to admire the galleries, the tall, glass-covered arcades containing shops, restaurants and theatres. Rue de Bouchers has restaurants representing every imaginable cuisine. Prospective diners walked up and down between pavement tables, sniffing the delicious scents of smoked bacon, garlic and seafood. We ate tous Belges, naturally. Not a sprout in sight, I'm glad to say.

The next day: to business. Like Paris, Brussels is compact enough to explore on foot with the help of the odd taxi. We walked down the Boulevard E. Jacqmain, a wide, elegant road displaying spectacular pieces of contemporary public art, and knew we were in Euro-land. If this is to impress delegates at the World Trade Centre, impressed they should be.

The student particularly enjoyed a vast cube made up of serpentine letters of the alphabet with an accompanying list, on a steel plaque, of words echoing each other's sounds in five languages. The route to the main thoroughfares is punctuated by a "shoe" with wings as tall as a house, steel pedestals supporting ballbearings as big as footballs turning in water, and a giant, broken circle standing in a lake. On the outskirts of the city centre a great bronze structure is programmed to inform you of the imminence of the Euro - counting down by the second.

The tourist route must include the Grand Place, which, even without its flower market, looks like the backdrop for a Grimm fairytale, all gilt and architectural gingerbread. Avoid the expensive chocolates here; a few steps away, in Rue des Chapeliers, Dragees Marchal is celebrating 150 years of craftsmanship and giving away a free 100 grams with each purchase. Delicate lace goods are also available near the centre, but, unless you have a hankering for a holey bookmark, are expensive.

Manneken Pis accepts the obeisance of coach party hordes with supreme indifference. The statue of the little boy lost and found by his rich merchant father in the act of answering a call of nature is made somewhat obscene by being tricked out in various outfits according to season. We saw him in sailor blue, but it could have been any of 400 costumes.The King's House museum has a whole floor devoted to them, some dating back to the 18th century. Shops bulge with kitsch Manneken Pis souvenirs, from ashtrays to startlingly ambitious corkscrews.

By lunchtime, we had to think about the flight home so, after a swift visit to the Notre Dame-like St Michael's Cathedral and an excellent coffee in a Grasmarkt cafe, we returned to the hotel and thence to the airport. Only an hour's delay this time - and a smooth take-off. The student pointed out that the piped music as we sat on the runway was The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony", a suitably ironic choice for our mixed experience he thought.

Next week, my colleague Geraldine Brennan gives Virgin Express another chance and attempts to reach Copenhagen.

Virgin Express single fare to Brussels is Pounds 29 if booked three weeks in advance. Tel: 0171 744 00040800 891199 (outside London). Web site: http:www.virgin-express.com

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