Europe | Benelux | Belgium – Mussels in Brussels
First of all, did you know that the keyboards in Belgium are laid out differently? The QWERTY is not where it is, and you have to hit shift to get the numbers. There are extra keys for all the weird accented letters. It is painfully slow typing out this story zithout qny ,istqkes.
I left Amsterdam for Brussels with minutes to spare. The train journey itself was uneventful, I suppose being early spring it was too much to hope for tulip covered fields. On arrival in Brussel Centraal, it was raining slightly. The locals here are mostly tri-lingual, easily being able to switch between French, Dutch and English.
The Boy Fountain
I decided to venture into town in the rain anyway. The centre is not very large, and looking at the map, I decided to seek out the Manneken Pis. This, of course, is Brussels’ eternally kitsch statue of a boy peeing. New York: righteous lady with blazing torch. Brussels: urinating boy. This might reflect in some way the Belgians’ sense of humour. It was smaller than I thought it would be, probably about a foot high, but what amused me more was the hoard of tourists passing by at a constant rate, taking pictures.
I was looking on in bemusement as the Japanese tourists departed and were replaced by a Spanish group, when an elderly Chinese gent offered to take a picture for me. He has apparently lived here for twenty years but still has some difficulty speaking English. I suppose his French is better. His version of the Manneken Pis (and all Belgians have their own version) is that the boy urinated on a bomb destined for the king, thereby saving the king’s life. I tried to imagine what the statue might have looked like if the enterprising young lad had did a number two.
Near the Manneken Pis is the Grote Markt (Grand Place). This large cobbled square is surrounded on all four sides by gothic splendour. On one side is the impressive town hall, whose tower dominates the view, opposite the splendid Maison du Roi. Linking them are rows of ornately decorated guild houses, whose ground floors are now mostly cafes and chocolatiers. I spent quite some time here gazing at the architecture and observing the world go by. I guess I was so struck with the place because I had never been in a place where I was boxed in on all four sides by architecture of this scale.
Moules Frites and Trappist Beer
Saturday night in Brussels is certainly popular for dining out. The Belgians love to eat, and there are more than 1500 restaurants in Brussels alone. I was venturing out early in the evening around the Grote Markt when I came across some narrow streets crowded with tiny restaurants. In this early spring time, they had already laid the tables out on the pathways. Numerous people were eating while many others were passing through, peering at menus and looking at the ice barrows of lobsters and shellfish on display. I moved on when I realised a drool puddle was forming on the street while waiters brought out large servings of seafood paella and shellfish platters in front of me.
I dined here two nights in a row, on one occasion indulging in what must be Belgium’s national dish, moules frites (mussels and chips). The serving turned out to be a large 1 kg pot of steaming mussels served with an equally generous amount of chips. Belgian beers are renowned for their variety, and I had a Trappist beer called Westmalle Tripel. The extremely flavoursome beer is rather strong at 9.5%. Trappist beers were brewed by the Trappist monks in ancient times, and the recipes have remained the same for centuries.
Far Out Brussels Sprout
On Sunday morning, Brussels seemed deserted. I had a pleasant time strolling along with only one or two other souls on the streets. By midday the Grote Markt had partly filled with people, and I spent a pleasant half hour sitting on some steps watching the tourists while munching on some fine Belgian chocolates.
I also walked up to the massive Palais de Justice, an enormous behemoth of a building housing the law courts. Its sheer size seemed to dwarf anyone walking by it. The building is also set on a higher level, and from here I could see beyond the rooftops of the old city.
Brussels is most certainly a neat enough city to do some walking, the places of interest are close enough, and there are plenty of establishments to indulge in their favourite sport of eating.
I took a day trip out to Bruges (Brugge). This charming medieval city took my breath away. Everything seemed to be preserved in time; the cobbled streets, the narrow lanes, the quaint buildings, the tiny pubs. The horse drawn carriages add to the illusion that you have truly stepped back into another era. I explored the twisting streets randomly for hours, and went on a boat trip on the canals.
The main square is dominated by the 13th century Belfort (belfry), soaring to 88 metres. I decided to see what nine months of vegetating in London had done to my fitness, so I climbed the 366 steps to the top of the belfry in the afternoon. I decided halfway up that I was more out of shape than I thought. The internal staircase goes up in a steep, narrow spiral, and I was out of breath before long. The view from the top is well worth it though, with the town spreading out some distance and the brick coloured rooftops carpeting the view.
Bruges is definitely a special place to visit, as it is one of the few remaining cities in Europe still preserved with this unique level of history.
Mooning in Antwerp
I headed to Antwerp (Antwerpen) for a day. Having been to Bruges I had half expected this to be a city lost in time, however it turned out to be quite modern and advanced. Walking the streets from the station, it looked like any other major city on a Saturday, filled with people and shoppers. Before long I came upon the Groenplaats (Green Square). This looked like the place where the tourists and locals congregate.
The cobbled square is overlooked by the towering cathedral steeple behind, and three sides of the square are filled with rows of busy cafes. It was a fine sunny day on this occasion, and I had lunch on one of the benches on the square, watching the people go by as usual. As I ate my gerbakbroodje and sipped my cappuccino I spotted a guy shouting to his friend across the square; he then dropped his trousers and mooned him. The friend responded by waving cheerily before walking off…
Those crazy Belgians.