I FLEW INTO Brussels having little or close to zilch expectations of the city, other than the fact that we were going to stay in Molenbeek.
Brussels surprised me. And I always like good surprises.
I remembered standing in the middle of Grand Place in absolute awe, and arguably one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe. On one end of the square is the city’s town hall. Built in a Gothic design, what was fascinating is its asymmetry and how there were many statues lining its exterior facade. I was told that they represented important figures and how noblemen in the past could pay to have a statue of themselves built and placed upon the town hall.
The rest of the square is surrounded by centuries-old guild houses which used to represent various professions – like the bakers, butchers, brewers etc. Most of the buildings boasted gold in the use of its decorations, a way to show the wealth of the merchants in those days.
Needless to say, the Grand Place is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Further in our trip are the typical sightseeing of any European country – the cathedrals and the palaces. So it was hardly surprising that the story of Mannekin Pis caught my attention. If you walk into any souvenir shop in Brussels, you would see a mini replica of a naked boy peeing. The actual statue itself is along Rue de l’Étuve if you walk straight down from Grand Place. There are many legends about the boy, one of which involves a baby who helped the army win a battle by urinating on their opponents. The most plausible one I have heard is that there used to be a shop of sorts in that corner, paying poor people to have their urine collected – back in the days when ammonia was not available to turn animal hyde into leather.
But that would spoil the fun wouldn’t it? Farfetched as it may seem, the story of the baby winning a battle with its urine is still more exciting.
The day we visited Mannekin Pis, he was dressed in an army general uniform. I learnt that the statue is dressed in costume several times each week as part of celebrations… what the Belgians do for simple entertainment. Hilarious! I would love to see Mannekin Pis in a pink tutu though.
Familiar with the story of Tintin, and his sidekick petdog Snowy? The comic author was Belgian. If you walk down the streets throughout Brussels and pay close attention to its walls, you would notice colourful large murals. There are 35 of them scattered in the city, commissioned by the city council after efforts to remove advertising billboards. At present, the murals add life to the city streets. There is even a dedicated Comic Book Museum.
We were lodging near the Bruxelles-Charleroi canal during our stay in Brussels and lucky for us, the 2014 Molenbeek Métropole Culture celebrations were ongoing that weekend. So we had access to delicious street hotdogs and crépes, musical performance and a chance to learn about multicultural Belgium. The area we were staying at had many Turkish and Moroccon establishments, representing some of Belgium’s immigrant community.
It was in Belgium that I got to know the ugly history of King Leopold II and the Congo massacre. But it was also in Belgium that I got to study the role of the European Union, and how Belgium plays an integral role as a member. On another plus side, Belgium introduced me the delicious inventions of Belgian waffles and Frites (French fries were stolen from the Belgians, how dare the Americans misname them!).
Oh Brussels, how can I not love you? Till we meet again, au revoir.
My recommendations for hostel-stay and a fantastic tour:
MEININGER Hotel Brussels City Center
Quai du Hainaut 33 (Molenbeek), 1080 Brussel, Belgium
Visited April 2014, stayed in a private 6-bed dorm for €28/night
Lucky to be staying during the weekend of the Molenbeek Métropole Culture 2014, there were ongoing street fairs right in front of the hostel along the canal. Pretty decent area if you’re looking for Halal food, as there were a number of Moroccon/Turkish establishments. The hostel is about a 15-min walk to the heart of Brussels. I loved the brick-red exterior of the building, used to be a brewery was what I was told. Fantastic rooms with clean beddings, though lighting can be a little dark… common kitchen facilities readily available for you to cook your own meals. Can improve on the outdated information provided on the website about getting there, as we could not find Tram 51 in direction Heysel from the Bruxelles Midi; same difficulty experienced by another traveller we met along our way. -My TripAdvisor review (NaniSG)
SANDEMANs NEW Brussels Tour http://www.newbrusselstours.com
Visited April 2014, 3-hour walking tour
Enjoyed the tour with James, very knowledgeable and helped facilitate a greater insight into Belgium with a side of humour… past rulers, stories of battles, historical sites, the making of its culture, current involvement in the UN. Ended the tour feeling appreciative of Brussels, as I had flown in with very little expectations. An afternoon well-spent! -My TripAdvisor review (NaniSG)