Brussels may be a small city, but there’s more than enough here to see and discover over a lifetime
Brussels is smaller than you think,” said my Belgian friend, Anne Buckens, “with more than enough to see over a lifetime. Start at the Grand Place, the most beautiful square in Europe”.
The handsome Flemish architecture of the square is truly unrivalled and we savoured it slowly. The 1459 edifice, Hotel de Ville (town hall) is studded with elaborate stone carvings and towers and the line-up guild houses alongside it bear testimony to strong trade in the seventeenth century, mainly textiles, food and beer. Several other Renaissance buildings beckon with attractive caryatids, gilded figurines and elegant arches.
Nearby, all manner of things Belgian are available along the old cobbled paths. Belgian beer, Belgian lace, Belgian waffles, Brussels sprouts. Well, not Brussels sprouts. Belgian quirkiness was certainly visible — Mannekin Pis, the famed bronze statue of an impish boy relieving himself on to the fountain stood steps away, seemingly enjoying the photographing hordes.
My favourite, the Belgian art form Bande Dessinée (comic strip art), can be seen everywhere on the walls. Tintin and Captain Haddock loom large on a mural overhead. Then we headed along Rue de l’Hospital to Place du Grande Sablon. In this chic Sablon neighbourhood, trendy boutiques nestle next to buzzing restaurants.
Seated in the attractive Vieux St. Martin brasserie overlooking a sunny, green patch, we took stock of the vest-pocket sized nation of Belgium and its people.
The locals are friendly, chatty, with a cheeky sense of humour and deep respect for their monarchy. Their love for the cocoa bean as well as malt and hops is evident. There are over 600 breweries in the country, many selling fruit flavoured ales.
It was interesting to take stock of some of the world-renowned talent that harks from Belgium — Jan Van Eyck is widely credited with inventing oil painting, Claude Levi Strauss first made blue jeans, actress Audrey Hepburn, designer Liz Claiborne, cartoonist Herge, artists Jan Brueghel, Rubens are all from these parts.
Flemish, Walloon divide The rich, flat lands that lie to the north of Belgium, occupied by the Dutch speaking Flemish folks, are home to the cities of Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges. They’d like to see themselves separated from the southern Walloons, who hail from the hilly Ardennes. With the collapse of the steel industry, these French speaking folks are experiencing a downturn. Though the capital, Brussels, is in the north, it is largely French speaking, illustrating the interwoven linguistic threads of the people. Here they put their differences aside and drink to St Arnold, patron Saint of brewers who promoted beer drinking in the Middle Ages as prevention from the plague.