The capital of Europe, Brussels is a city that is diverse in art, culture and history. There is a huge variety of attractions, from the history of the Guild houses and the town hall and the Grand Place, the majestic style of the Royal Palace or the fun of the Atomium and Mini Europe. Brussels is also a home for food, where confectionary houses such as Neuhaus and Godiva make some of the best chocolates in the world, while the restaurants around the centre of Brussels compete aggressively for customers.
1. Mannekin Pis.
2. Grand Place and Galleries St Hubert
3. Cathedrale St Gudule
4. Parc du Bruxelles and Palais Royale
5. Bruparck (Mini Europe and Atomium) from Metro Centrale
6. Place du Grand Sablon, Place du Petit Sablon
7. Dinner at Rue du Brouchers
Cilla (my sister) and I, boarded the Eurostar train from London Waterloo to Brussels. In our three hour trip we left England through the Eurotunnel, the road/rail tunnel that connects south east England with Northern France at Calais. From here, the train passes through the french towns Lille before finally arriving at the Gare du Midi in Brussells. However, two hours into the trip, the train started slowing frequently, like one of those slow overground trains on the national rail network. Not surprisingly, there were technical problems with the train so we changed trains at Lille to continue our journey. Other than this frustrating incident, we arrived at the Gare Du Midi station early in the evening.
Brussels was still warm which was a welcome change from the cold London weather. Famished from our delayed journey, we went to the Rue Des Bouchers for dinner on advice from the concierge after checking in. Apparently this was the main area where many of the restaurants were located. As we walked, there was an unsettling silence around the area and it felt as though we were out of place with the rest of the world. Even the area around the Bourse. Apart from some of the bars, Pizza Hut and other fast food restaurants around the area which had some customers, the streets were nearly devoid of people.
It was a much brighter,cheerful atmosphere when we arrived at the main restaurant streets. The main mall were full of people and tourists walking around or looking for something to eat. Hungry, I approached one of the signs to look at the food. Suddenly, out of the blue, a waiter appeared and asked me if I wanted to eat. Flattered by his hospitality, I told him I'll think about it and looked elsewhere. This sort of behaviour continued each time we walked close to a restaurant, as if it was some religious custom they have practiced from their past generations. After enduring a constant barrage of waiters and restauranteurs, we eventually settled for one restaurant and we each had a huge pot of mussells for entree before getting into the main meals. After our hearty meal, we headed back to the hotel.
The next day was a beautiful, warm day in Brussels - a welcome change from the weather in London. Such a beautiful day and we "can't let it get away (Bono - Beautiful Day Oct 2000)!" Our first stop was Mannekin Pis, and already there were lots of tourists taking photos even though it was about 8 in the morning. The Mannekin Pis is a statue of a little boy urinating, and smiling comically at the same time. Judging from the activity around the statue, it looks like this is one of the must-see attractions in Brussells. I am not sure about the background of the statue, but I know for sure it is now an icon that exists for the purpose of bringing good luck to Brussels. And, every now and then, the statue is dressed up in different costumes. Here, the statue appears to be dressed in boxing gear. After half an hour, we wandered off to the Grand Place through Ru De Ch Bulstraat.
The Grand Place is a market square that has a distinct flemish atmosphere with its majestic town hall and fine guild houses while evoking an air of timelessness. Like the saying "A picture says a thousand words" the Grand Place itself can say a thousand words. The square itself is the history of Brussels and has seen through many uprisings up to its present day.
At the tourist information centre in the town hall we found the Brussells Guide and Map which was a small blue booklet that costs around 80 Belgium Francs. I found that the guide had lots of information, including names and the descriptions of the guild houses that surround the Grand Place and some history of the Grand Place itself which more than satisfied my need for knowledge about this place. Probably the best looking guild houses were the ones located to the right of the town hall (Nos 1-7 according to the guide), but the one I thought that caught the most attention was the statue of St Boniface above No 24 and 25. We then headed into the the courtyard of the town hall, where there were a few water features but otherwise it was nothing amazing in contrast to the stylish medieval architecture of the town hall and the hotel.
Within walking distance from the Grand Place via Rue de la Colline is the long shopping arcade known as the Galleries St Hubert. The Galleries St Hubert is basically a long shopping arcade that stretches from the Place Agora to the Rue D'Arenberg and is divided in the middle by the main dining street of Rue Des Boucheres. What was really amazing were the number of sweet shops inside the Galleries St Hubert. Inside, we encountered a Neuhaus chocolate shop which showed off their chocolates in the shop windows in all its granduer, a caramel and toffee shop, and even the Haagen Daas ice cream shop were selling Godiva Chocolate bars.
We turned right, and walked up Rue D'Arenberg just at the end of Galleries St Hubert and encountered the Gothic-styled Cathedrale St Michel (known to the city-dwellers as St Gudule). This 13th century cathedral truly reflects its time, with its tall, finely decorated twin-steeple facade and stain glass windows. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time to go in and explore as nearly half the day had gone. David Warjnorwycz once wrote we should smell the flowers while we can but we definitely were not doing that today. Out of time and out of patience, we quickly set off for the Royal Palace via Rue Du La Chancelerie, Mont Du Parc and the city park - Parc De Bruxelles.
After taking a stroll through the Parc De Bruxelles we arrived cobbled-stone road of Place Des Palais which separates the park from the Royal Palace (or Palais Royale as it is known in Brussels). The large dome and facade of the palace stood out in all its granduer, while the rest of the building stretched from one end of the street to the other side. Garden beds containing flowers and neatly cut hedges grew within the confounds of the gothic-styled palace. The palace itself was built around 1820 under the supervision of King William to replace the former palace of the Dukes of Brabant which burned down in 1731. We entered through the gate and headed into the doorway.
The Palais Royal is a superb example of imperialist architecture and design that is both extravagant and remarkable at the same time. As I walked around, I had to admire the time, dedication and patience the builders of this palace in decorating the ceilings with paintings, painted carvings and engravings as well as the gold painted pedestals and marbled and mirrored within the ballrooms and dining halls. Many of the hallways and rooms were also lined with various tapestries and paintings of places, people and events. Overall, the furnishing of the palace must have been an interior decorator's nightmare or dream, depending on which way you see it.
After the Palais Royal, we walked back down to Place Agora for lunch, which is just near the Grand Place and opposite the Galleries St Hubert. There are a myriad of coffee shops and restaurants over here, but not as many as the Rue Du Bouchers. Food around here was fairly cheap and good quality, which was a big relief after living on expensive food in London. We then headed for the closest metro station at Centrale so that we could get to Bruparck. This would then involve us changing trains at Beekkant to get to Heysel.
I could not help but notice the presence of gypsies and beggars roaming the station platforms and even the trains for money or food. Some would hop on the train and ask for money, or either approach a vending machine and try and bump out its contents. I was not sure if I should feel sorry for them in living such a hard life, or angry for not making the effort to make their lives and everyone around them, better. Having said that, the Brussels metro has got to be one of the most efficient and organised rail routes I have ever seen. The total journey only took about fifteen minutes and we could already see the spherical observation decks of the Atomium appear as the train approached its destination. As a first stop, we went to the Atomium, but we had to walk through the heat and humidity for about a further 10 minutes to get there.
Once we entered the Atomium, we were whisked away into a lift that would take us to the middle level observation decks where we could take in the views of Bruparck and Brussells. After this, we were allowed to proceed up another level where we could read up on the history of the Atomium in the comic world. In addition, the top spheres can also be accessed. There was however, one catch, we had to walk all the way up to the top deck, and then walk back down the stairs back to the ground floor, totally bypassing the elavator. As it was a fairly old structure, the escalators going up to the top levels did not work. So we were obviously tired and sweating after coming back down and were not sure if we could make it to Mini Europe.
Eventually we relented and arrived at Mini Europe. I'm not sure why we came all this way to look at miniature versions of famous landmarks and structures around Europe, but it was fun nevertheless. Many of the models had sound effects that can be activated with a switch near the model. Some of these included the Big Ben with the familliar bell sound of the clock tower, Mt Vesuvius which erupted steam and the model of the european-built Ariane Rocket. Other models include the famous Eiffel Tower, Pisa, the Arc de Triomphe and a miniature version of the Grand Place in Brussels. As you tour the park, it is obvious that the park is paying tribute to the aspect of unity across the various european nations that have joined the European union. And it is pretty extroadinary that so many countries with distinct cultures and histories as well as past differences can finally unite with each other and solve the problems of the world.
After taking a well earned rest in the eating area of Mini Europe, we caught the Metro back to Centrale. As it was still too early to eat dinner, we decided to take another walk around Place du Royale before going back to the Rue du Bouchers for dinner. We walked through the Mont des Arts Kuntsberg and walked up the stairs to Place Royale.
The Place Royale is another square that but is much smaller and less attractive than the Grand Place. At the rear of the square stood the Church of St Jacques sur Coudenberg while in the middle of the square is the statue of Godefroid de Bouillon, who led one of the Crusaders' invasions to the Holy land, appeared to be leading his army into battle. The church looked unusual to the other monuments and buildings we had encountered, in that the architecture and design had a very east european influence. This is contributed by the structure of the facade, which consisted of a pediment supported by tall columns that were similar to those temples found in Greece. As I looked around the square and the statue, I could not help but feel amazed at the huge amount of history we had encountered in such a small area.
We walked down the Rue de la Regence towards the huge structure that was the Palais de Justice and arrived at a small park called the Place du Petit Sablon.
Built in 1890 by architect Beyaert, it shares that Flemish Neo-Renaissance style found across many of Brussels monuments. However, an air of peace and tranquility seemed to settle in the park, as the main iron gates and neatly shaped garden beds shielded the park from the main street. At the back of the park are 48 bronze statues of the guild masters that lived in the 16th century. But in the middle stood a fountain with a statue group of Counts Egmont and Horn, who were executed by the Spanish Inquisition in 1568. As we settled down for a rest and looked around, I again started thinking about the vast history that lived within the small city of Brussels - why were there so many monuments and was there ever a time in Brussels where nothing had happened?
As the sun disappeared, the various shopfronts stocking antiquities, art and crafts that had occupied the Place du Grand Sablon were in the process of packing or had already gone for the day as we made our way to Rue Du Bouchers for dinner. Such missed opportunities did not disappoint me, however, it had been a long day and we know that a lot of ground had been covered. Provided that I used my time wisely in my life, I was sure that there would be many opportunities to tour Brussels.