Saturday, September 20, 2008

Brussels - city of cartoonists, waffles and pickpockets

Grand Place in midday

So first mistake going to Brussels: assuming that Midi must mean the same thing as central. Nope. In French, it means "Noon". If I'd known the Dutch name for the same station (Brussels Zuid) I would have known I was at the South station when I exited my train, and not wasted 45 minutes desperately looking for street signs (Belgians are apparently above labelling their streets), and not finding the ones I did see on my map, because I believed myself to be at the central station. Regardless of that, I eventually found my hotel and met friends there.
Brussels Arc de Triomphe

Not wasting any time, we headed out to the Grand Place, the central city square, and even though it was 11:30 at night, the place was lively. The buildings surrounding the square were especially picturesque at night time and all through very cool.
Grand Place at night

The Manekin Pis, a famous sculpture of a little boy peeing (literally what the name means) was nearby, and visiting late at night was a great way to avoid the crowds that built up there in the day. Though a return the next day allowed us to see him in a change of clothes, as it is typical for visitors to give him clothes.
Manekin Pis at night

Manekin Pis the next day

Oh, and one must not forget waffles. WAFFLES. Unbelievable. I will never eat any again unless they come from this country. There is just no comparison.
Waffle shop!

The next morning we set out to go to the Atomium, the gargantuan monument built for the 1958 Expo in Brussels. I expected a statue of some sort, and did not realize we were headed to the highest thing overlooking the city. The 9 spheres represent the unit cell of an iron crystal, and can be entered through an elevator that runs up the middle, and escalators in between. The structure was built to last 8 months, but still stands to this day. As it is now the 50th anniversary, it was understandably quite busy.

The Atomium

We came back and visited the Place de Jeu de Balle (Ball Game Square) to see the local flea market. Quite interesting, there were things from around the world, from many different cultures, alongside your normal fleet of broken radios and sunglasses. Of note were a gigantic toothbrush, and guys actually selling couches.....somehow....

Flea MarketToothbrush!

Chocolate shops were a must on our trip round the city, but most proved too rich for my pocketbook. One that offered free samples made for some strong feelings of guilt when I discovered that even the cheapest stuff for sale was too much. They didn't like us.
Galleries St.-Hubert - the world's first mall

We saw the local Beguinhof on the map, and having heard of a Beguinhof in someone's research for Belgium, we decided to go there. It turns out that the one we were thinking of was the Beguinhof in Brugges, which we visited the next day. The Brussels Beguinhof was perhaps more interesting all the same. Arriving at it, with my rough understanding of German and speaking English, I figured out that the sign on the door said 'For 21 days the women have been on hunger strike" in Dutch. We were invited inside by men in their mid-thirties standing at the doors, and inside were were presented with one of the most unique scenes I've seen in all my time here. An old, Baroque church, housing dozens of protesters inside, mattresses covering the floor,neon pink and yellow blankets hung up to give some sense of privacy. The whole thing had to do with immigrant's rights, which apparently are not too great in Belgium (as in a lot of the rest of Europe).

Frites in front of a church
Top of a fountain - this motif is seen on all emblems of the city

Brussels is known as the "unofficial" headquarters of the EU, though it looked pretty damn official to me. EU parliament is based here, as is a lot of the big important agencies. Lots of shiny glass and pretty buildings.
EU Parliament


After missing a chance to get to the re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo, but getting some Belgian frites to make up for it, we headed back into the city, and were lucky to stumble upon the music festival that was going on over the weekend. Granted, the music was......different....the crowd was still interesting, and cool to hang around for a while in. Walking through the park nearby on the way out, there were an unbelievable number of teenagers sitting, hanging out, drinking and smoking. There was hardly a square inch of grass free. (or a gram of it, either).
Outside the music festival

Our night ended at Cafe Delerium, as all three of us had independently heard of the bar, located just beside the Grand Place. The place was a tourist hole, but we put that aside for the evening. Perhaps we shouldn't have. Proudly advertising that "In 2002, it was determined that they had 2002 different beer varieties to serve", the place was definitely interesting. Leafing through their inch-thick binder of a menu, we picked out some for each of us, followed by a 2L novelty glass we has seen others drinking from when we stopped by to scope out the place earlier in the day. Where things went lousy was when we realized my friend's wallet was missing. Lost credit cards, passport, and 300euro is a rough thing to take away from a weekend in Belgium.
Cafe Delerium
Belgian Beer

Finally, Belgium is where a lot of the art of drawing comics has originated. You see this throughout Brussels, as statues, murals, and even billboard-like signs at the top of buildings. One thing that I wish I had more time to explore while there, but I did find Tintin!

.....?? Brussels is full of cartoon formsTintin! Atop a building

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