Travelogue – Brussels
My only ever visit to Belgium had been a day trip to Ostende to break up a drunken boys weekend in Ramsgate many moons ago. My Mum’s bucket list had for the longest time had a trip on the Eurostar listed on it, so I decided this was one she should tick off and my son and I took her to Brussels in August for an overnight trip.
The only way to get the Eurostar from their home near Eastbourne was to get up at the crack of dawn and drive the country roads to Ashford International. The one Brussels train of the day departed at 7.28am, but we hardly saw another car and took our window seats and were soon in the tunnel and on our way to Calais.
Noticeably in both directions the train was 15 minutes late arriving as it slowed through Calais due we suspected to the illegal immigration problems at the French side of the tunnel, but despite bouncing forward an hour we were in Brussels at just after 10am.
I had wondered what kind of identity Brussels would have. Would it be French, Dutch or German influenced or simply neutralized by it’s Euroland narrative and be, well, just European. But no, I was pleasantly surprised that despite Brussels being at the heart of European history for over 1,000 years it very much had it’s own personality.
Brussels was officially founded in 979, when a small castle was built near the Senne River. By 1100 Brussels had its first fortified wall. From the 12th century onwards, Brussels developed as an important stop on the commercial road from Bruges to Cologne. Emperor Charles V used Brussels as the capital of his vast kingdom and the city flourished under his patronage.
The period 1500 to independence in 1830 was marked by rebellions and uprisings but Belgium’s last great revolt was in 1830 when it protested against King William of the Netherlands to gain independence. King Leopold I, who was the uncle of Queen Victoria, became the first King of the Kingdom of Belgium on 21 July 1831.
Brussels was occupied by Nazi Germany throughout both World War’s and was a part of the Brussels Treaty in 1948. Ten years later in 1958 Brussels was chosen for its central location and political neutrality to be the European Economic Community’s new headquarters, an honor that was a precursor to it becoming the location for many of the European Union’s offices and hence has a reputation of being a little staid and indistinguishable as the home of Europe.
I had picked a hotel that was near the Grote Markt or Grand Place, which is at the heart of the capital. When dropped our bags and started by admiring the Cathedrale des Saints Michel and Gudule, which was right next to our hotel. Founded in 1047 but added to over centuries, many of Belgium’s royal family are buried in the chancel.
Next on our journey was the Centre Belge de la Bande-Dessinee, the comic strip museum where Herge’s Tintin takes pride of place. The museum is housed in an art nouveau former department store and it had a magnificent shop where we made our first gift purchases.
After a cup of strong coffee and a delightfully crafted tiny macaroon we walked through the very impressive glass ceilinged Galeries Royales St-Hubert which led to the Grand Place (Grote Markt). The shopping arcade was the first of its kind in Europe when it was completed in 1847 and contained beautiful window displays, one after the other, that slowed a stroll to a linger. Who knew a glove shop could be so enticing?
We had lunch in the Galeries Royales St-Hubert at one of my favourite New York imported restaurants that was Le Pain Quotidien. A great place for pastries, salads and tasty little tartines, it was also time for my first Belgian beer of the trip, Silly Pils, a sweet honey tasting number.
Every other shop in Galeries Royales St-Hubert is a handmade chocolate shop, prompting chocoholic’s to seek therapy or at least a small bank loan. From here we entered a medieval warren of narrow streets with names that gave clues as to what used to happen here many years prior such as Marche-aux-Herbes, the Herb and Grass Market.
Then, suddenly the Grand Place opens up in front of you, and our initial reaction like almost every other person in front of us, was to stop in awe and take in the amazing surrounding architecture before pulling ones camera out of your pocket to attempt to do this remarkable square some justice.
Grand Place has long been the centre of the city and when at the end of the 13th century a variety of markets cropped up here the large space was created and the foundation stone of Hotel de Ville was laid in 1401. The great and the good of the day then began to adjoin their own exquisite guild houses.
Sadly in 1695 Louis XIV bombed the hell out of Brussels out of revenge devastating the Grand Place and only the bell tower of the Hotel de Ville survived but it was rebuilt to its original plans. Opposite is the ornate Masion du Roi (the Kings House), also known as the Breadhouse after the bread market it was built on in 1515.
On both sides of these incredible buildings are beautiful houses that each has their own history of owners and occupants, not all lawful. Each different but built over a very short time that illustrates the Baroque architecture of the late 17th century. There is no church with emphasizes it’s mercantile history and Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an architectural jewel considered to be the most beautiful square in Europe.
Sadly we picked the wrong August to see the flower carpet. Every other August an enormous carpet of colourful begonias are set up in magnificent pattern covering the entire area of the square.
Every reference to Brussels’ iconic Manneken-Pis prepares you to be underwhelmed, and we were. In fact only a horde of tourists with cameras pointing at a wall meant that we didn’t miss the statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. Like everybody else we took a snap and walked on.
We carried our walk out towards Le Sablon, once a grassy marshland but built up in the 16th century by ruling families. We walked in the increasing warmth past antique shops, galleries, restaurants and then the Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon situated at the top of Place du Grand-Sablon. It’s sibling Place du Petit-Sablon had a lovely little park where we took a break and watched a stressed-out park keeper attempt in vain to keep little kids running around it’s gardens. Beyond the park is Palais d’Egmont.
After a break we were on the hunt for a snack as we passed the huge Palais Royale and it’s gardens full of ceremonial pomp. Also within it’s grounds is the Musee BELvue, which will tell you all you need to know about the royal family, who sadly no longer live here. King Philippe and his family live at Laeken Palace on the northern outskirts of the city.
The Parc de Bruxelles is next door and is the biggest open space in the city. We had a nose in but were on a waffle hunt and instead crossed the road towards Place Royale, an open elevated space which captured the remarkable beauty of Brussels superbly. The imposing Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Musee Royaux de Beau-Arts Belgique) is here as well as the Ancient (Musee d’Art Ancien) and Modern (Musee d’Art Moderne) exhibitions and art lovers could get lost for days.
I was taken by the Old England Department Store, an art deco building now housing a musical instrument museum (Musee des Instruments de Musique) which was really busy. We carried on past the Gare de Bruxelles, the cities main train station before getting back to our hotel to put our feet up.
The 9Hotel was perfectly placed, modern on the right side of trendy. The staff were helpful and friendly and after freshening up we had a pre-dinner drink before heading back out. We were hungry and couldn’t wait for European dinner time, with restaurants not opening until after 7.30pm, so ended taking a gamble on a place in L’llot Sacre, a touristy area near Grand Place.
La Petite Fontaine more than exceeded our expectations and served a nice array of dishes to suit our tastes including a big bowl of moules which my son and I had been in search for. The house wine was good too.
The next day after a buffet breakfast that had everything, we took the tram uphill to Les Marolles, a working class area according to my book, but also the location of the cities famed flea market at Place du Jeu-de-Balle. We got off the tram at the massive Palais de Justice. Sadly the giant exterior was covered in a lot of scaffolding and armed police patrolled the exterior of the most important court building in the country, which had us questioning who was in court that day.
The Palais de Justice was built from 1866 to 1883, and involved large slews of Marolles to be demolished. It was said to be Europe’s biggest building at that time and a particular favourite of Adolf Hitler’s during occupation. Now the building with it’s gigantic dome towered over the free and handsome city below.
To get to Les Marolles you have to exit down a bizarre lift which opens at a busy square at the heart of Rue Haute, one of the oldest and longest streets in Brussels.
The market was huge and popular and it was fair to say you could buy anything from postcards to lawn mowers. We found no bargains so after a coffee pit stop we walked down Marolles’ cobbled streets with it’s many bric-a-brac shops and cafes and got back on the tram.
The tram was great and free, although I don’t think it was meant to be, and we got off at Rue Royale and strolled back past the old city and Bozar, an arts centre that is used for events and exhibitions, and made our last purchases of French macaroons and heavenly little chocolates back at the enticing Galeries Royales St-Hubert, stopping again for waffles and beer, before we to had to re-pack our bags and make our way back to Gare du Midi for the Eurostar home.
Two parts of the city I would have liked to have got to if we had more time were Heysel and the European Parliament. Heysel is at the end of the Metro line to the north. Here is Belgium’s national stadium the Stade Roi Baudouin, named for the Belgian monarch who died just before it re-opened in 1995 ten years after it was witness to one of football’s worst ever disasters when before the start of the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool 39 people, mostly Italians and Juventus fans were killed. 4 Belgians also died and 600 in total were injured.
Also over at Heysel is the Atomium, constructed of metal spheres linked by large tubes. There is also a large recreational park called Bruparck which includes a model Mini-Europe.
The east of the city a couple of miles behind the Royal Palace is the heart of the EU. Streets of government buildings, accomodations and busy ministers, diplomats and their staff doing their thing with two large open spaces to seek solitude away from the politicking at Parc Leopold and Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Stade Roi Baudouin isn’t the only major football stadium in the capital. Whilst our ex-sisters Standard Liege play 60 miles away in the mostly French-speaking south-east, Brussels is home to Standard’s big rivals Anderlecht, who play just outside of the city at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. 3rd Division Royale Union Saint-Gilloise also play in the city.
The ‘Capital of Europe’ tag gives an impression of a boring, characterless and dreary place but it was none of these things at all. Instead Brussels had life, personality and a bubbling conviviality. The city of Tintin, beer, great art, history and master-chocolatiers is eminently manageable and greatly interesting. The European influence only a side show to centuries of history within it’s ornate narrow streets and splendid large squares and all at the end of a train line!