This is the second post about my trip to Brussels. The first post detailed the country’s history and can be found here.
Using the Eurostar, it was as easy as expected to get to Brussels. It wasn’t quite as easy to find my hostel though. The directions provided by the hostel instructed me to take the metro in the wrong direction, which wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t until I was on the train and looking at the map that I realised their mistake. Clearly the hostel owners weren’t as adept at using the metro as the local teenagers. When you go through the barriers, after having inserted your ticket, the barriers linger open for a second or so. The local youths had realised that if they bunch together two of them can get through on only one ticket. I saw quite a few of them ‘sticking it to the man’ in this way. Fair play to them, I suppose.
Once I was heading in the right direction the rest of the journey went fairly smoothly. Upon arrival at the hostel the receptionist mentioned a free walking tour the next morning. It seemed the ideal opportunity to learn more about the city, so I got up early the next day and joined the tour, and was very glad I did.
After visiting a few other hostels to pick up tour members we made our first stop at the Grand-Place. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for very good reason. It was built in the 13th century as a merchants market and is now one of Brussels’ main attractions. It exhibits spectacular examples of baroque and gothic guild houses and is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. It’s spectacular look:
At one point Karl Marx lived on the square, our guide explained. But the most famous property is the gothic Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). It dates from 1402 and is from where the civic government operates. Its façade has a famous crooked spire which is 315 feet high and topped by St Michael (which I helpfully appeared to have missed out in all my photos).
Another notable local landmark on the tour was Manneken Pis aka ‘Pissing Boy’. It’s a cheeky little statue of young boy ‘urinating’ into a fountain. He’s been amusing visitors to Brussels since 1619 and is probably the city’s most photographed statue. It’s become customary for visiting dignitaries to donate miniature versions of their national costumes for the naked statue to wear (he’s only 60cm high).
The guide told us an amusing story about an occasion when someone stole the statue. The first thing the Police did was rush to the City Museum to obtain a spare. They prioritised installing the spare over tracking down the perpetrators, an indication of how seriously the locals take the statue. Once content that the spare was firmly in place they set about tracking down the thieves, resulting in the statue’s eventual return.
The road upon which the statue is situated was, according to our guide, the best place to get proper Belgian Waffles. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to try this local delicacy, so I returned after the tour to give them a try. The guide explained that Belgian’s eat their waffles plain; the various toppings on offer were just for tourists. As the toppings cost extra, it means that to eat them the proper Belgian way is actually the cheapest. And at only 1E, I couldn’t argue. I had one. It was delicious, so I immediately went back and had another. It was early December when I went, so there were various Christmas markets around. This provided the ideal opportunity to wash down the waffles with some nice hot gluewhein. Admittedly, it was a bit early in the day for alcohol, but I was on holiday, which seemed a perfectly legitimate excuse.
I then went to the back to the Grand Place to visit the City Museum. This was good timing as torrential rain hit just as I was a few metres from the museum.
The City Museum (or Maison du Roi) details Brussels’ history from the Middle Ages to contemporary times. I was hoping to learn a bit more about Belgian history in general, but, understandably, the city museum simply focused on the city. The museum also housed the collection of outfits for the Mannekin Pis. There was every possible costume you could imagine, over 760 in total. There was even an Elvis jumpsuit, although I’m not sure which country’s national dress that was supposed to be. While pondering this question my mind drifted onto an interesting fact I discovered many years ago. In Ecuador the word for a disco dancer is travoltarse. It comes from the word Travolta. As in, John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever. There’s an amusing pub factoid for you.