Belgique

by vpundir | April 11th, 2008

Eurolines runs an overnight coach service from London Victoria to Brussels, which suited me perfectly for quick getaway. The coach deposited me at Gare de Nord at 5.30 am just as the city was beginning to shake out of its slumber.

I wandered around the station a bit before finally heading south on Boulevard Jacqmain. The Grote Markt is almost right behind the Bourse. To me, the area beween the Bourse and the Grote Markt seemed to be intensely Greek.

The Grote Markt was almost entirely empty when I reached there. The city’s largest and most famous square is a world heritage site surrounded by Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), L’ange (The Angel), and Broodhuis (Bread House).

Hôtel de Ville is built in Gothic style, complete with a 96 m tall tower on which Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Brussels, stands and watches over the town. It also houses the Tourist Information Center. Broodhuis, which used to be a bakers’ outlet, is now a Museum better known as King’s House. Interestingly, the only diamond jeweler on the square is Indian, not an Antwerp Jew.

Next, like any first-timer, I headed to the Manneken Pis, the 24-inches tall naked and urinating bronze boy. In fact, in Brussels it would seem that all roads lead to him, since almost all road-directions include directions to the mannequin.

The legend goes that the troops of the two year-old Duke Godfrey II of Leuven put him up on a tree to inspire them in a battle against the Berthouts. Perched in the tree, he urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who ended up losing the battle.

I have also heard an alternative version that is funnier and also makes more sense: While Brussels was under siege in the 14th century, a little Brussels lad named Juliaanske chanced upon the enemy plot to blow away the city walls. The smart little one urinated on the fuse and the charge, thus saving the city.

While the Jérôme Duquesnoy statue itself is from 1619, it is said that it was preceded by a similar stone statue that delivered alcohol, and stood in the same place. (Naturally then, both the restaurant-bars next door are named after Manneken Pis)

The inscription under the statue says, “In petra exhaltavit me, et nunc exaltavi caput meum super inimicos meos,” which is funny because the statue has been stolen numerous times.

In 1747 after the Manneken Pis was recovered from a strip club, where the French soldiers that had stolen him left him, Louis XV offered him a costume. Since then the Manneken’s wardrobe has grown to include several hundred costumes that he dons on the directions of an organization called The Friends of Manneken-Pis.

While there, I also discovered that there are similar statues in Geraardsbergen, Hasselt, Ghent and a French village called Broxeele (I don’t understand French, but my sense is that Brussels and Broxeele would probably be pronounced identically in French). In fact, Geraardsbergen says that its Manneken Pis is older than the one in Brussels, a claim that Brussels naturally vehemently rejects.

There is a nice little waffle shop just a few meters up the Rue de L’Étuve that offers amazing fresh waffles. Interestingly, the chocolate shop right next door to the statue is at least managed exclusively by Chinese.

The souvenir shops all over the town have collectible metal and resin effigies, keyrings, corkscrews and chocolates shaped like Manneken Pis, which is hardly surprising considering that this little boy is Brussels’ most famous landmark and icon.

Also quite naturally, there are homages to the Smurfs and Tintin all around the town. And if one is vigilant, one can also notice some references to Asterix. Surprisingly though, M. Poirot is conspicuous only by his absence. Like all good pollsters, I didn’t ask anyone about it but am speculating that perhaps the Belgians never embraced Englishwoman Agatha Christie’s fictional detective as their own.

Back at the Grote Markt, life had started buzzing. Almost right in the middle of the square, some people were setting up what seemed to be a flower market, and on closer inspection turned out to be a flowering-plant market. The stewardesses had starting scribbling the day’s menus on the menu boards outside the restaurants. And some tourists had already started clicking pictures.

Brussels is an island of French in an ocean of Dutch/Flemish. In the lower town, French is almost the exclusive tongue used. That said, most shopkeepers around Grote Markt and Manneken Pis do also converse in English, a consequence of having to deal with a large number of tourists on regular basis.

As one makes one’s way through the Rue des Bouchers, which is packed with restaurants as the name suggests, one is told of a female counterpart to the Manneken Pis.

Call me a sexist, but somehow the concept of a naked boy taking a leak in public sounds less obscene than that of a similarly attired girl squatting to do the same.

Located at the end of Impasse de la Fidélité, which is marked mainly by the blue signs of Delirium Café bearing a pink baby elephant, Denis-Adrien Debouvrie’s Jeanneke Pis statue/fountain was installed in 1987 as, one assumes, a gender equality statement. She is also geographically a counterpoint to Manneken Pis, being located as she is about the same distance away from Grote Markt in the opposite direction.

Jeanneke Pis is much bigger than Manneken Pis, though. The statue itself has about the same height as Manneken Pis does, but since Jeanneke is squatting, she is probably about a meter tall. Therefore, proportionally she is probably eight times the size of Manneken Pis in terms of volume. Notice, I didn’t say “in terms of bronze used”; that’s because Jeanneke Pis is made of limestone.

Once you have traversed your way back through what I call the “Food Lane”, and emerge at Place Agora, you’ll find an underground market at Grasmarkt. The stalls in this market sell everything from beads, clothes and shoes to luggage to store the beads, clothes and shoes. I think of this market as a miniature version of Palika Bazar in New Delhi’s Connaught Circus, not the least because quite a few of the shopkeepers are Desis and Tibetans.

From the Grasmarkt it is a short walk on Rue de la Montagne to the Cathédral and Musée. The building is impressive as are its numerous stained glass windows. While I was there, a choir of little schoolchildren sang a motet enthusiastically and beautifully.

Oh, one thread that I caught there, but am yet to explore is the involvement of Hungary and Hungarian church in Belgium. There were breadcrumbs to pick up all over the church, not the smallest being a large chart detailing “Medieval Dynastic Saint-Cult in Hungary”

Considering my day done, I headed north, past the Opera and the Place des Martyrs.

My day was hardly done though, as I ended up chatting till 3 am with a bunch of people that just gravitated into the group. There were the three Americans, of respectively Korean, Chinese and American ethnicities, who had been out “doing Europe” for about six weeks, and were returning to Los Angeles the next morning. There was the Chinese academic doing research on what makes people happy. There was the unusually quiet Spanish guy from Madrid.

And of course, there was a Canadian figure-skater who, having graduated from college last year, had spent the last six months in Croatia and was headed to Bucuresti to do some volunteer work for 2 weeks. On her way from Toronto she had stopped over in London for a couple of days to see a friend, and had had her luggage stolen, and yet had soldiered on to Croatia where she did an au pair on a farm.

It was in this esteemed gathering that I learned that the only reason anyone would want to visit Brussels is the beer. Compared to the Belgian beer, Budweiser tastes, to use a direct quote, “like piss”. This might well be the case, as these were the strongest beers I had seen anywhere. While most beers available worldwide have somewhere between 3.5% and 5% alcohol by volume (7% to 10% proof) and the ones that have 5.5% alcohol are considered extra strong, I actually saw beers with up to 17.5% alcohol, and was told that it went up to even 20% for some beers.

The next day, while I did check out the Jardin Botanique, I spent most of my time in the upper town.

The most imposing structure, of course, is the Palais de Justice, the Law Courts of Brussels. Described as the biggest secular building constructed in the 19th century, the Palais was built using money from Leopold II’s Congo Free State.

Straight down from Place Poelaert on Rue de la Régence lies the Petit Sablon, a pretty little garden surrounded by 48 bronze statues representing different guilds. The flowers and fountains apparently have been an inspiration to local artists, and I found at least one girl drawing on the beauty to write poetry in French.

Right behind the garden is Parc d’Egmont, that can be reached through the stairs about 50m to the south on Wolstraat. While this is a bigger park, it is more of a green field than a garden, and not quite worth a visit, unless you are planning on an afternoon siesta.

Just a short way further down from Petit Sablon on Rue de la Régence is the Musea Voor Schone Kunsten, followed by Place Royale. Place Royale provides the entrance to the cathedral of Palais Royal. The church is much smaller inside than it looks from outside, though it does house two splendid paintings: Venite Ad Me (Come to me) and Consummatum Est (It’s over).

When I was visiting, the outside steps of the building were serving as an outdoor studio for a class of some young artists who, I assume, were drawing inspiration from the excellent views of lower town afforded.

From there I took the side alley that opened into Brederodestraat and followed it all the way down to Troonplein. As you might have guessed, I was headed to the European Parliament building a short walk down the Rue du Luxembourg. While it is not the most impressive glass and steel structure I’ve seen, I quite liked the modern architecture.

Considering that the European Parliament is located here, it is not surprising that this part of town is quite cosmopolitan.

By circling around Parc Leopold using the pathway starting immediately to the right of the EU Parliament building, one can reach the tiny Museum of Natural History. The Jubilee Park and Museum of Military History are located a short way down on Rue Belliard, but I decided to skip the Jubilpark, which seemed as unexciting as the Parc Leopold.

Instead, I headed back towards the city center on Rue de la Loi. The surprise encounter on the way was Bank of Baroda, an Indian regional bank, before I reached Palais de la Nation. While the building itself is not massive or highly ornate, it is located next to Parc de Bruxelles, which is home to characteristic statues. This peculiar style focuses in a great deal of detail on the bust part of the statue, and chisels out the rest of the body in rough, eroded stone.

I was also lucky to reach Parc de Bruxelles at a time when the park fountain was dressed in a rainbow. It was quite something, I have to say.

My last stop on the way back was the Congresplein, erected in the memory of the unknown soldier.

Overall, Brussels works very hard to maintain its vintage “character” and is quite a beautiful city, but if you are tourist, it is not more than a one-day destination. I spent about two half-days there, and was able to absorb most of the sights and sounds of the city. And I was essentially just walking around! If you use public transportation, and plan your trip, it should definitely take less time to “do” Brussels.

Since I normally prefer a laid-back attitude of gradually discovering the nature and character of cities and their people, the above statements and advice might seem quite uncharacteristic. But the fact remains that Brussels just didn’t quite pique my curiosity enough.

The most amusing incident of the trip came at the fag-end. I had reached the Eurolines office at Gare de Nord a little early and was waiting to check-in when something caught my attention. I thought my ears caught the sound of “…prezece…” being uttered, though I’d like to believe that I had sub-consciously heard substantially more than that before venturing out to ask: “Ești Român?”

The middle-aged gentleman at the receiving end of my query was startled out of the conversation with his companion. And now both of them were looking at me with an unwavering expressionless gaze.

Maybe I hadn’t gotten through, I thought, and repeated the question. And it was then that I saw him give, almost nervously it seemed, the slightest of nods, which I had noticed the first time around but dismissed as my imagination.

I suppose that it was only logical for him to ask, “Și ești Român?”, however ridiculous it might have seemed.

“Nu, Indien”

“Locueşti în Brusel?” he asked, or at least I think that’s what he asked.

“Nu, Londra”

“Vorbeste Româna?” he pointed to the clerk at the counter.

“Cred că nu”, I tried to summon my Romanian vocabulary.

“Italien?”

And I arched my eyebrows and shrugged my shoulders in the international gesture for “I haven’t a clue.”

To cut a long story short, the gentleman under question was trying to find if he could get a place on a coach to Romania on the 16th. Unfortunately though, he spoke only Italien and Romanian, and the counter clerks spoke only Dutch/ Flemish, English and French. So I ended up acting the interpreter, gasping for breath while swimming in the linguistic ocean.

Before you ask, the funny thing is that I understand only a word or two of Romanian, and do not know it well enough to have even a simple conversation in the language.

So there.

Oh, and I managed to wrap-up this trip, including travel, boarding, lodging, and souvenirs, for under £150.

Click here to check out my pictures from Brussels of 09 and 10 Apr 2008.
P.S. – There are three pages in this album! If you’re not running the slideshow, don’t forget to check out the second and third pages 🙂

One Response to “Belgique”

  1. Anonymous says:

    mi-a placut. i mean, enjoyed it 😉

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