Brussels doesn’t set out to make you fall in love with it. The ongoing joke is that most people, especially the ‘eurocrats,’ hate Brussels when they arrive, but learn to love it the longer they stay. Cry when you get here, cry when you go.
In just three days, it’s uniquely muddled characteristics – from the cobblestoned streets with a small-town feel to the European Union headquarters that reek of importance – gets under your skin. The enticing scent of waffles around every corner doesn’t help much either.
I was enchanted by the Grand Place, a square that once housed elite Belgians in fancy baroque apartments. The Grand Place was where Brussels started – the economical and political linchpin of the city. The square is home to the 15th century gothic Town Hall. The architect responsible is Jacob van Thienen, who dedicated 40 years of his life to the construction. They ran out of space halfway through the project and as a result, the building is a bit asymmetrical. There’s an urban myth that van Thienen was so devastated by the outcome that he threw himself out of the top tower. This legend is completely untrue.
Across from the Town Hall is the Maison du Roi (house of the king), which is now the location for the city museum. It was here that two Protestants were executed by order of Filip II of Spain – a trigger for the 80 years war.
In the corner of the square, you will find the Maison de Brasseries (house of brewers). At first it seemed odd that a building dedicated to brewers would be centrally located in one of Belgium’s most important economic and political centers, but there is a reason for it’s prominent location. In the 11th and 12th centuries, beer was the only thing that people could drink without getting sick. It was a similar stories for bread bakers. Brewers and bakers essentially kept the city alive, hence the reason they were both located in city center.
Right next door to the Maison de Brasseries is a baroque-style building with a beautiful swan perched above the door frame. Welcome to Karl Marx’s residence. It was here that he wrote The Communist Manifesto.
So much history in one little square! Let’s take a walk down the street to visit the most famous statue in all of Brussels – the Manneken Pis. Literal Dutch translation = “Little peeing guy.” Wondering why he is so small? If they had made him any bigger, he would have been considered a pornographic symbol.
The Manneken Pis has been stolen several times and there are several stories surrounding his captures and returns. My favorite is the story of when he was stolen by French soldiers. When the Belgians asked for their little peeing statue back, the French king obliged, but not before making him a French symbol. That meant that anytime a French soldier passed the Manneken Pis, they had to salute him.
Overlooking the Grand Place about 1km away is a beautiful garden called the Mont des Arts. The stairs that lead to the garden are decorated with reliefs of Oscar Jespers, Charles Leplae and Rik Poot. The garden is a link between the old town and the royal library Albert I and the Royal Museums of Fine art of Belgium.
The rows of trees lead towards the statue of King Albert I on his horse below. During WWI, the Germans requested to march through Belgium to conquer Paris. King Albert I refused, essentially leaving giving up Belgium’s vow to remain neutral during the war. With the whole world watching, Belgium held back the Germans for a total of seven weeks. In this moment, Belgium proved that the kaiser and his army were no longer invisible.
So one question remains: have I fallen in love with Brussels? I love the Old Town and Grand Place, but my waistline certainly will not be crying at the thought of waffles not readily available on every corner…