When I asked my friends what to do on a day-trip to Brussels most of their advice was very simple: eat a waffle, drink beer, buy chocolate, and walk around. However, during my layover in Brussels on the way to Israel, I discovered lovely gems of the city extending too and beyond its delicious food. Though I was slightly less organized about this trip than about my Amsterdam layover I am excited to share with you all, the Brussels I discovered.
First a little background information about Brussels, a city contained within the Brussels-Capital Region of Belgium (one of the three main regions of the country). Brussels is considered the de facto capital of the European Union as it hosts several major EU institutions (along with Strasbourg and Luxembourg). While it is historically Dutch-speaking, the city experienced a shift to French language starting from the early 18th century. Back then, French was considered a more “prestigious” language. Francization effectively ceased around the 1960s because Dutch regions of Belgium prospered economically and Dutch language regained popularity. Currently language-use is pretty evenly split between French and Dutch with many individuals knowing both. I speak a little French but no Dutch and found that most people I met were able to communicate with me, if not in French then in English. Brussels was built on the banks of the Senne River and was a major port city and trading center throughout most of its existence. However, by the 19th century, the river was highly polluted and became a major health hazard leading to major floods and a cholera epidemic. Hence the river was diverted and covered in 1865 – without this however Brussels might have been a city of canals like Venice and Amsterdam. Interestingly, I learned that people are able to go underground and tour one of the subterranean tunnels of the Senne. While I did not have a chance to do this it is definitely on my to do list for the next trip.
After my plane landed in Belgium, I took a 20-minute ride on the intercity train to Bruxelles-Centraal the main train station in Brussels. I found the city to be extremely walkable. Getting to every location I describe involved less 15 minutes of walking, even from the train station. In fact, I was able to circle the center multiple times throughout the day.
My first course of action was to take a 2-hour walking tour of Brussels with Viva’s, a native Belgian organization committed to opening the heart of Belgian cities to tourists. Viva’s tours work on a “pay-what-you-like” basis and are available in Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent in addition to Brussels. Our enthusiastic and energetic guide shared the history, urban legends and hidden mysteries of the city. He also gave great tips on where to eat and drink the cheapest, tastiest, and most authentic Belgian delicacies. In general, I believe that walking tours are a wonderful thing to do, especially during a layover – not only do they reveal the standard landmarks and history of a city, but they also leave time for and provide tips on how to best immerse oneself in the local culture.
The tour started at the Grand-Place, a large square in the heart of Brussels, alive with classic cafes, chocolate shops, and stands selling Belgian waffles. In the 12th century, the Grand-Place was already a marketplace and as trading became more important to the economy, and merchants rose in power, improvements were made to the square. The streets surrounding the square are actually named for foods in homage to its historical significance. The square was burnt down by French armies in 1695 however it was rebuilt by the city’s guilds in only 3 to 4 years (which illustrates pretty well how wealthy they were). The Grand-Place was central to a lot of Belgium’s history – it is the place where the socialist party formed and was the unfortunate location of many executions throughout history. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
There are many notable buildings surrounding the square; I will discuss 3 of them. First is the current Museum of the City of Brussels, also called Le Maison du Roi and the Broodhuis. This is a beautiful, gothic revival building which I’ve been told has a lovely collection of tapestries inside. The museum used to be a bread and clothing market (who knows why the two were combined). The building was originally constructed by the Duke of Brabant in 1536, to establish a location of ducal power which would compete with the municipal power of the Brussels City Hall, which is right across the square.
The next building, is the Hotel de Ville or the Brussels City Hall. This building is slightly quirky: upon looking at it one will notice a huge number of architectural mistakes. First off it is not symmetric and the entryway to the building is not centered. There is a legend that the architect who constructed the building was in such a rush to finish it, that he screwed up all these details and jumped from the tower upon discovering his errors. What actually explains them is that different parts of the City Hall were constructed during different epochs, and the doorway was eventually moved from the side to the front. There is a 5-foot golden statue of St. Michael fighting the devil at the very top of this building as St. Michael is Brussels’ patron saint. The City Hall still functions as the seat of municipal power in Brussels.
The last building I will discuss, is the building of the Brewer’s Guild, which now houses a beer museum. Apparently, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also wrote the first draft of The Communist Manifesto there (I wasn’t too surprised that a lot of beer was involved in its creation). Apparently, the beer museum is quaint and cute, tickets include free beer, and is worth the visit if one has the time (I didn’t unfortunately).
The tour then walked us through a few other interesting and notable landmarks of Brussels. First off, the Brussels Stock Exchange, which is not really in use any longer but still an interesting architectural landmark. Next the Brussels gay district, which has a beautiful mural at the entrance. We also walked through the Galeries Royale de Saint-Hubert, a majestic shopping center more than 100 meters in length. Our guide recommended we buy Belgian chocolates from the brand Galler – apparently, they are not super expensive as far as Belgian chocolates go and are also quite authentic since they are made and sold only in Belgium.
Finally, our tour group went to see the Manneken Pis, the famous statue in Brussels depicting a naked boy urinating into a fountain. The statue is surprisingly small, only 24 inches tall and people joke that the Manneken Pis is the oldest resident of Brussels – he has been around since 1618. There are a ton of legends about why there is a random statue of a peeing boy in the city-center: our guide told us that this boy peed on a burning fuse when the city was under siege by a foreign power and saved it. The boy is dressed in the traditional clothes of different nations according to a published schedule – when I saw him he was dressed in Philippines attire. On certain holidays, the Manneken Pis is also hooked up to a keg of beer, and passersby are handed out cups of beer collected from the stream.
The tour ended around lunchtime, so I decided enjoy some traditional Belgian snacks. I bought frites with andalouse sauce in a traditional paper cone at a frieterie right across from the stock exchange. The tour guide recommended this place specifically, because they get fresh potatoes delivered every day. The secret to the Belgian frites is that they are fried twice: first at a lower temperature to cook the inside to a fluffy consistency, and then at a higher temperature to make the outside crispy. The frites are meant to be eaten with a mayonnaise-based sauce and andalouse is a spicy variety of this. The fries were delicious though too big a portion for just one person (in my humble opinion).
I then travelled to the Delirium Café, a legendary, 3-story bar in Brussels, to try a glass of Belgian beer. Delirium Café has a menu of 2,004 different beers available and was entered into the Guinness Book of Records for this enormous variety. It is located in a small alley that you have to knowingly seek out. However, delirium brand beers are also served all over Brussels and one can recognize the brand by the café’s iconic pink elephant. The Delirium Café alley also houses a statue of a peeing girl, the Jeanneke Pis, who is affectionately known as the Manneken Pis’s little sister. This statue was specially commissioned and installed in 1985. There is also apparently a statue of a peeing dog (the Zinneke Pis) somewhere in Brussels – I’m not sure why this city is so fascinated by urinating beings. At the café I ordered Delirium Red, a cherry beer that the café had on tap. It was one of the best fruity, sour beers I’ve ever tried and cost 4 euros. I went with a fellow tourist, who ordered a beer called The Triple Carmelite, which is brewed by nuns in a monastery (the Viva’s tour guide had told us this was his favorite there). I tried this beer too, and it was tasty and interesting, but probably best left to fans of bitter beers.
After enjoying food and beer, my next stop was the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. These are six conjoined museums in the city center dedicated to honoring the works of Belgian artists. The museum tickets are very cheap for visitors under the age of 25. I bought a ticket for only 2 euros the Magritte Museum. Rene Magritte was a surrealist Belgian artist who was central to founding and revolutionizing this movement. Traumatically for the artist, his mother committed suicide by drowning when he was young. He later married and spent his life with childhood friend Georgette Berger who was a great inspiration to his work. While initially Magritte was introduced to surrealism by his friend Andre Breton, Magritte’s decision to stay in Belgium during the Nazi occupation and the development of his unique approach to art caused a rift between the two. In general, Magritte was a loner artist and relatively isolated from the bustling surrealist movement. Many historians hypothesize that this was because of the prejudice he faced as a Belgian. Magritte found success towards the end of his life and sadly died in 1967 from pancreatic cancer.
Like all surrealists, Magritte aimed to use symbolism and unusual juxtapositions to get people to reexamine the world around them and question their understanding of reality. However, rather than creating a warped and elaborate dreamlike image (as in Salvador Dali’s paintings for instance), Magritte drew simple and recognizable objects and scenes while throwing in unexpected details. He represented things with utmost precision and clarity, in an almost flat and two-dimensional way. Some art critics say his style was more “automatized” than his surrealist contemporaries. In fact, many artists of the time criticized him for creating multiple copies of his works. Magritte also enjoyed confusing the onlooker of a painting with an esoteric title, that at first appeared highly disconnected from the clear and often trivial images in his paintings, but upon further inspection appears to carry a profound and discombobulating meaning. Looking at his art one can get deeply unsettled without realizing what exactly is so disturbing.
It’s important to note that for most of his life, Magritte made his living by working in advertising as this is clearly reflected in his artistic style. Many of his paintings have the distinct vibe of an advertisement: they are composed of a simple image with a brief but often obscure “tagline”. This highlights another very unique aspect of Magritte’s work – his incredibly “meta” approach to art. Magritte was very interested in the interplay between text and images as well as reality and its representations. His art constantly pushes viewers to go beyond the medium of images and understand its strengths, limitations and “treachery” (notice the veiled reference to the artist’s most famous painting which is displayed at the MOMA). Magritte does the same thing with text – reading the title of his paintings makes you think about how phrases and words convey something that art can’t.
The Magritte museum was possibly one of the most mind boggling and captivating adventures into art of my life. I was enchanted, fascinated, disturbed and confused all at once as I looked at paintings, read titles, and tried to discover what everything means. For me, walking through the museum was similar to reading an incredible piece of literature full of imagery, symbolism and characters. Just like I do with books that really get me thinking, I walked through the museum twice and looked at every painting at least twice. The first time, I only got a cursory, basic understanding of each work of art. Only the second and third look allowed me a glimpse into the depths of these paintings and all they convey about the world. I won’t bother trying to interpret Magritte’s work in this blog entry as I think that would defeat the point. But I highly recommend looking through Magritte’s paintings, visiting this museum, and thinking profoundly about the nature of the human condition.
My final destinations of the day were two beautiful churches. First was the Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon Church located in the heart of the Sablon district, right next to a vibrant antiques market. Construction of this church is thought to have commenced at the turn of the 15th century and took almost 100 years. The church was dedicated to the crossbow guild. There is a legend that a woman named Beatrijs Soetkens was instructed in a vision by the Virgin Mary to steal an important statue of the virgin and place it in this church. The statue was venerated by the guild but was destroyed when the Calvinists sacked the church in the 16th century and no longer exists. However, an annual procession called an Ommegang was born to honor the statue and remains an important event occurring every July in Brussels to this day. The church is best known for its incredible baroque chapels commissioned by the Thurn und Taxis family and an intricate pulpit designed by sculptor Marc de Vos. The church is not huge, but beautiful with tall ceilings and picturesque stained-glass windows.
The second was the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It was constructed in the 11th century on Treurenberg hill to honor St. Michael, the patron saint of Brussels. The church was significantly expanded by Dukes of Brabant, Henry I and Henry II in the 13th century. It took almost 300 years to fully complete. The cathedral is perhaps no match for other Gothic churches, which are usually way more colorful and elaborate, but still elegant in its style and simplicity. In fact, Victor Hugo called it the “purest flowering of the Gothic style”. Things worth noticing include the judgement window, donated by Emperor Charles V, and the beautiful 18th century Baroque Pulpit, sculpted in wood by Henri-Francois Verbruggen. Apparently, a pair of rare Peregrine Falcons also nest on this church and can be viewed there in April and May.
With this, I concluded my day in Brussels and continued on my way to Israel. Hence, I would like to offer some final thoughts. When I was embarking on my trip, a few friends had told me that they are not fans of Brussels. Similarly, when I exited the train station there, it was definitely not love at first sight. However, taking a tour of the city, learning about its history and culture, tasting the food and even writing this blog, gave me a newer and deeper appreciation for Brussels. The city’s warmth and beauty is not obvious but must be deciphered and uncovered and understanding Brussels requires work and a bit of dedication. So, my recommendation to get the most out of the city and really enjoy your time there, is to do some research before visiting, take a tour (or 2), and to try to go with friends (beer tasting is way more fun with company). Hopefully your experience will be as unforgettable as mine!
Thank you for reading this post and hope you enjoyed. Hopefully, as I am on vacation, I will have time to write another travel chronicle soon. As usual, all photographs in the entry are originals and please feel free to comment with any ideas or questions. Till next time!