24 HOURS IN BRUSSELS
After a short 35 minute train ride from Ghent we arrived into Bruxelles Central this morning ready for a day of sightseeing and prepared to be wowed by Belgium’s capital. Headquarters of the European Union, NATO, and many large multinational companies, this, we’d been told, is the Capital of Europe. Sounds awesome right?! Well, it is…, sort of. Brussels certainly has its own appeal, but we wouldn’t rate in our “Top Ten”. There’s an interesting mixture of architecture, some great museums, a swath of brilliant restaurants and eateries, and lots of stuff to see and do. There’s also an awful lot of dirt, grime, graffiti (and not the good kind), and corners that smell like urine. Let’s just say we have mixed feelings about Brussels after spending the day exploring the city!
Brussels started out as a small settlement on a marshy island in the middle of the River Senne in the 6th century. Since then it has grown from a village to a fortified town, a prosperous trading city, and, today, into a busy modern city with a population of 2 million. Like the country it leads, however, it seems a city divided in 2 in many ways: there’s the gentrified Upper Town, with its palace, museums, wide boulevards and leafy parks, and the Lower Town, with its narrow Medieval lanes, bars, restaurants, and inner city ghettos. There’s also the division between the ultra-modern part of town, where all the EU, NATO and government offices are, and the older parts of town, where many of the beautiful old buildings are boarded up and covered in graffiti. Language is another obvious divide; officially Brussels is bilingual*, with all street signs and official signage in both Dutch and French (in the rest of Belgium however one language or the other prevails). The contrast between Brussels’ Upper Town and Lower Town; between its modern and old towns; and between its Flemish and Francophile citizens, all add to the city’s unique character, but also make it hard to get a sense of the city as a whole. Still, after just a day here, how we possibly hope to understand a city that is more than 1,500 years old?!
*Brussels straddles the 2 distinct (and often at odds) regions of Flanders in the North (the Dutch-speaking, Flemish part of Belgium), and French-speaking Walloon in the South. To help appease both Flanders and Walloon the capital was declared bilingual in the 20th century.
Positioned as it is at the crossroads of Europe, Brussels has (like much of Belgium) been dragged into wars and destroyed numerous times, most recently during World War II. Due to these cycles of destruction and reconstruction, the architecture in Brussels is diverse, and spans from the Medieval constructions around the Grand Place, to the post-modern buildings of the EU institutions. It makes for an interesting cityscape in many ways.
As well as just generally admiring the cityscape, we had a list of specific sights we wanted to see in our 24 hour sojourn in Brussels. Starting, first and foremost, with the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the city’s central Catholic cathedral (St Michael and St Gudula are also the patron saints of the city of Brussels).
A chapel dedicated to St Michael was built on the site in the 9th century; over the years this was added to, rebuilt, and extended until, in 1519, the current structure was finished. Most of the cathedral escaped destruction during the wars of the 20th century and today stands as a testament to the resilience of the Belgians.
The Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula stands in the Upper Town, once the abode of the Francophile ruling class. It was here the nobles built their palaces and mansions, churches and parks; still today the wide avenues and grand architecture of this aristocratic quarter – the bulk of which dates from the 18th and 19th centuries – lend the Upper Town a stately, dignified feel that’s markedly different from the bustle of the Lower Town.
Today the Upper Town is home not only to the town’s elite, but also to the city’s museum quarter. And there sure are a lot of museums in Brussels, including the Paleis voor Schone Kunsten (Dutch) or Palais des Beaux-Arts (French) which houses numerous examples of Belgian fine arts; and the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), dedicated to all things musical and housed in a lovely art nouveau building high on the hills in the Upper Town. We could easily have spent another day or 2 here, exploring these , but alas, with just a single day here we chose to forgo them all and just marked a few to visit if/when we return here.
One place we DID stop for a visit was the magnificent Royal Palace of Brussels, which is where the King and Queen of the Belgians holds audiences and holds state affairs (King Philipe and his family don’t live there – the royal residence is out of the city centre)
The facade of the palace is fairly unassuming, but the few state rooms open to the public were VERY richly decorated and quite stunning.
Leaving the palace we set out downhill to explore the Lower Town, stopping along the way to admire the views across the valley from the Upper Town.
Despite the Upper Town’s noble roots, most of Brussels’ famous sights are actually down in the Lower town. Including its most famous statue and city mascot: the Mannikin Pis. This tiny (it really is small – just 60cm tall) bronze statue of a little boy peeing has to be one of the most unique town symbols we’ve ever seen, and for such a modest sculpture, it sure attracts the crowds! There were hordes of waffle and chocolate munching tourists crowded around the small statue this afternoon, all desperately trying to get their glimpse of the little guy. Not since visiting the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen have we seen so many go so crazy over a simple statue! It’s all about good marketing isn’t it?! Since he was placed in his little alcove in 1618, the Mannikin Pis has become so popular that there’s now a fence and security cameras to protect him (the statue has bene repeatedly stolen over the years – the current one isn’t even the original, just a replica made in the 1960s to replace the previous one when it was stolen).
Why so much hype over a little boy peeing? Well, it’s certainly unique and you could say that the statue encapsulates both the quirky Belgian sense of humour and their general disregard for authority! Little Mannikin Pis was naked today, but to add to the quirkiness, often he’s dressed in one of his many outfits and sometimes they even hook him up to a keg of beer to help the locals celebrate significant events!
Continuing on through the Lower Town we entered the general flow of pedestrian traffic headed towards Brussels’ iconic central plaza: the Grand Place. The square really is beautiful, fringed by the gorgeous City Hall, the lavish Breadhouse, and opulent guild houses dating from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
Originally a modest market square, the Grand Place began to gain prestige ion the 14th century when local merchants and tradesmen, grown wealthy from their labours and keen to express their distaste for the nobles of the Upper Town, started expanding and renovating their guild houses to make them even richer and more ornate than the palaces of the city’s nobility!
The guilds were soon engaged in a war of beautification, each trying to out do the other with the magnificence of their trade house. To top it all off, the Brussels City Hall was built on the south side of the square in 1455, ensuring the square would forever be seen as the heart of Brussels.
To counter this display of wealth, in 1504 the ruling duke tore down the bread market building and built a large, very ornate building across from the city hall as symbol of their ducal power. Known amongst the nobles as Le Maison du Roi (The King’s House), the edifice was soon rebranded by the common people as the Broodhuis (Breahdhouse). Ah, the folly of it all… Still, the result of all that one-upmanship is stunning!
After a bit more strolling around the streets, and a brief lunch stop, we found ourselves under the vaulted glass ceiling of the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert. This 19th century shopping arcade in Brussels was built to copy the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, and is similarly beautiful. The shops inside are also similarly pricey, with most of them specialising in high end fashion and “luxury chocolate” (not sure exactly who that differs to regular chocolate, except for the price tag!). We’re not in the market for any designer clothing, shoes, or handbags, and chocolate that costs around €100/kg is also not really in our budget, but we still had fun admiring the window displays.
Just as we finished strolling through the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert it started raining, so we dashed back in our nondescript little hotel room where we’re now watching as a thunderstorm lashes Brussels. It’s been an interesting day in Brussels and whilst we really enjoyed some of the things we saw, we haven’t fallen in love with Brussels. Maybe the key to enjoying this town is to give it a bit more time – maybe it grows on you a bit more over time…