Hot on the trail of a mass exodus of caravans from Holland to Belgium we drove to Brussels for a weekend break. We parted from the caravan chain on their way to the Ardennes, to head for the capital city. You immediately know when you have crossed the border into Belgium as the quality of the road deteriorates, and gets progressively worse the deeper into Belgium you travel.
Naturally there are always adjustments you need to make when visiting a new country. This is no more evident than the driving habits of the Belgians. Firstly, acclimatising to the death defying vehicular manoeuvres is a challenge; the overtaking tactics on the motorways can be traumatic for the unseasoned foreigner. Secondly, the excessive speeding could be viewed as a nation’s attempt at mass suicide. The proof lies scattered at the side of most Belgian highways; debris from accidents and blow outs as a monument to failed attempts to overtake whilst simultaneously breaking the sound barrier. In particular, look out for cars with registration plates that only have five characters; these are drivers that have never had to actually pass a driving test and were on the road prior to 1973 when the Belgian licensing system changed.
On arrival in Brussels we checked into the Hotel Atlas on the Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains, five minutes form La Grand Place , a moderate, comfortable hotel used by business trade during the week and offering a very reasonable rate at weekends. The only downside was the view. Our room overlooked a future building site, as the surrounding area is being given a much-needed facelift.
With rumbling tummies we set off to meet up with some friends in Chez Leon, a popular restaurant that throws you into the hustle and bustle of Belgium at lunch. It is situated amongst many other eating establishments down a narrow street called Rue des Bouchers. The street is a sea of red canopies, protecting passers-by from the unpredictable elements of the Belgian weather, as well as providing an almost Mediterranean atmosphere. After a satisfying meal we ambled along the busy streets, full of hoppers, to La Grand Place. This square in the centre of Brussels is a popular tourist area and is generally busy. In the rain it loses some of the beauty and colour, but when we returned the following day in the sunshine we were pleased we had gone back.
Dominating La Grand Place is the fifteenth century town hall with its spire almost a hundred metres high and a statue of the devil being crushed under the feet of Saint Michael adorning it. Opposite the town hall is the Maison du Roi, rebuilt in the 1890’s and now housing the City Museum, which amongst other items holds the wardrobe of the Manneken-Pis, which can be found a stones throw away from the Grand Place.
The famous fountain depicts a urinating boy and there are a number of legends surrounding the figure. My favourite is that Brussels was under siege in the fourteenth century and the attackers placed explosives at the city walls. A little boy named Juliaanske from Brussels was spying on them and urinated on the burning fuse, saving the city. The statue has been stolen a number of times, and Franco-Flemish Baroque sculptor, Jerome Duquensnoy created a replacement bronze statue in 1619.
Back on La Grand Place there is the statue to honour Charles -Everard de T’Serclaes which reputably brings good luck to those who touch it. It is clear where the statue has been repeatedly touched; shiny gold in the midst of a dark dull sea of bronze.
Of course a visit to Belgium is not complete without sampling a range of its national beers. If you want to take some of these beers home note that a lot of the popular beers can be bought in the supermarkets for much less than the specialist shops in the centre. In some cases we spotted prices up to quadruple that in the supermarkets. That said, the specialist shops are more than worth a visit for the lesser-known beers and unique beer glasses. Nothing beats an intrinsically-shaped glass for the ultimate enjoyment of your beer. Of particular note is Kwak, with a wooden rack for holding the glass.
The nightlife in Brussels offers a varied package, with a mix of people and attractions. The most extravagant group we saw were dressed in Scottish kilts and orange wigs, but luckily this was the exception rather than the norm. There was an extraordinary police presence in the city centre, which was both reassuring and concerning. We did, however, see no trouble on the streets. As with any big city, tourists should always be wary.
The variety of bars is notable, including quiet traditional bars, Irish bars, sports bars and music bars. The first bar we visited is a local favourite called Mort Subite on rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères. It is a busy open plan bar, which serves a range of local beers and is a good place for conversation and people-watching. Our second stop-off of the evening was a quieter affair called Au Bon Vieux Temps, cosily tucked down a very narrow side street called Marché-aux-Herbes (pictured right) . Wood paneled ceilings, stained glass windows and ambient decorations conjured images of a traditional British pub. The only down side was that little was available on tap, but the range of bottled beer was good. A real local’s bar that was definitely worth the visit. To round off the evening we visited the Dépot in the A. Ortsstraat which was a more modern affair with loud pumping music, club lights and a young clientele that served a good pint of Guinness.
After a visit to St Catherine’s church and St Michael and St Gadule’s Cathedral on Sunday morning, we mistakenly thought we had seen all the sights that Brussels had to offer. Our second day however comprised an unexpected tour of Brussels, given to us by a friend of mine from university, who could almost consider himself to be a local, having traded in the UK to live in Brussels over eight years ago.
From La Grand Place we walked to the Old England building, designed in 1899 and for the last five years home to the Museum of Musical Instruments. Taking a lift up to the roof (a free entrance ticket for the café is available in the entrance) we sat on the terrace overlooking the sights and sounds of the capital city.
From the rooftop the dome of the law courts is visible and was built by the second government of Belgium, a non-Catholic government. When the subsequent government came to power, this time a Catholic one, it was declared that the biggest dome should not be that on a non-Catholic building. Work began on the cathedral, with a dome to outdo the law courts. However a decree came from Rome that forbade the dome to be completed, as it would be higher than that in Rome. The resulting dome on the cathedral is smaller than that of the law courts.
From the viewing platform at the Palace of Justice, home to the Belgian Supreme Court, we had our first glimpse of the Atomium, a structure built for the 1958 International Exhibition. It replicates the nine atoms of an iron molecule, magnified 165 billion times. Recently re-opened, after a 25 million Euro facelift, it shines once more on the horizon of the city. On the square outside of the court is a shrine to two of Dutroux’s victims, Belgium’s most prolific pedophile. From the Palace of Justice there is a glass lift down to the bottom of the hill, constructed to help the cyclists of Brussels who struggled with the climb. I was told that some cyclists make a detour out of their way so they can use this lift, adding time onto their journey, but avoiding the manual climb.
The tour progressed to the antique quarter and the Place du Grand Sablon, home to the church of Notre Dame du Sablon, constructed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and boasting fourteen meter high stained glass windows. Nearby, at the Place du Petit Sablon, a pretty garden area displays forty eight bronze statuettes, representing the sixteenth century guilds. The next highlight was Rue Vanderschrick, comprising a row of buildings all designed by the same architect, Ernest Blerot, but each uniquely designed. Onto the Palais de Beaux-Arts, the first building in the world to house concert halls, theatres and cinemas as well as restaurants and shops in one place, situated near the site of the school where two of the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, taught and is featured in Charlotte’s book “The Professor”.
Moving to just outside the historic city wall, we attempted the crossing of the Place du Jeu de Balle where the regular Sunday flea market was in full swing. Books, electrical goods, glassware, bric a brac, furniture and almost anything else imaginable was available for purchase. For those interested in bargain hunting many an hour can be wiled away here.
The only remaining gate into Brussels made for an impressive memory, surrounded by green grass and a sea of blooming yellow daffodils it was well worth the stroll. It was further buried into the memory banks as it was at this location I heard of the existence of the annual nudist bike ride around the city. A tidbit to ensure a location stays in mind.
As a grand finale two more hidden treasures were presented to us; the only place in Brussels where the river running through the city, the Senne, comes to the surface and the Zinneken-Pis. The first is a little known fact: the river being sent underground in the late 19 th century to prevent flooding and disease. The Zinneken-Pis, the pet of Janneke and Manneke-Pis, is situated on Rue des Chartreux. I have been reliably informed that it is connected up to the water mains but as yet is not switched on.
On our way out of Brussels we stopped at the Atomium to view it at close range and on account of the lovely sunshine, the Bruparck hosted its fair share of tourists. Unfortunately it was closing as we got there so we only viewed it from the outside, but nonetheless it is a large and impressive structure, dominating the road leading up to it. As we drove out of the park we had a quick glimpse of the very beautiful Chinese Pavillion and Japanese tower, located near the royal residence.
Despite leaving Brussels exhausted with sore feet, we would not hesitate recommending the experience. Wandering away from the obvious busy attractions leads to a world of hidden, fascinating experiences that guarantees fond memories of Belgium’s capital city.