Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Building up muscles in Brussels.

We booked our hotel through a travel company and then promptly forgot about the logistics of travel. What the hell was I thinking???!?!?!? I assumed we would arrive in Brussels and be in the thick of things and have no trouble finding our hotel. Instead, we arrived in a horribly busy central station, in a place where once again I didn’t know the language and could NOT suss out a direction to save my life! We wandered the streets for at least thirty minutes before stopping in at not one, but two, different hotels to ask directions. When we finally DID locate our hotel, we were very pleased. The Hotel Ibis St. Catherine’s was nice and the view from our room was beautiful. We were on the fifth floor, overlooking St. Catherine’s church. Spook, yet very beautiful in its gothic way.
St. Catherine's.
St. Catherine's Church.

We were also very close, an easy five minute walk, to the Grote Markt—the Grand Square. Which was truly grand, truly awe-inspiring and worth the entire cost of the trip to see it! It is this place that lingers in my head, the throngs of people embraced by elegant architecture that stood as testament to the resilience of the Belgians. In 1695, the French bombarded the city destroying much of the Grote Markt. But within four years, the guilds of Brussels rebuilt their square more resplendent than ever. That is what moves me the most—that such magnificence could rise so quickly because of the dedication of a city’s people. We kept wandering back to this place—it just keeps pulling you back. At night it is alive, vibrant, almost magical.


Grote Markt. Brussels

Moonrise on the Grote Markt. Brussels

Ton wanted to get up very early one morning and watch the city come to life. We got up at 5am and started wandering the streets. The main thoroughfares were already busy, but the back streets leading to the Grote Markt were silent. The Grote Markt was virtually deserted, except for the flower vendor setting up his wares and the sweepers tidying up. Slowly more store owners trickled in as the sky started to lighten. It felt like watching a play, seeing a scene that had been acted out day after day for centuries. It is a good memory and one Ton's best ideas, ever.

Grote Markt. Brussels

Grote Markt. Brussels

One of the first things I wanted to do in Brussels was see the world-famous fountain, Manneken Pis. The little boy peeing. There are a lot of legends about this little statue but no one knows the truth of his origins. But if I was in Brussels, I had to see him for myself. After all, there’s a whole museum dedicated to him and his international wardrobe. Since Brussels is a center of international banking and diplomacy as well as head of the European Union, dignitaries from all over the world come here and gift the city with outfits for the lil’ guy representing their culture. All I can say is, after a long walk up some decently steep hills, I would have walked right by this "attraction" if I hadn’t seen three or four people taking photos of something. Turns out that Manneken Pis is indeed a little guy. Tiny. In fact, not more than a foot tall or I’ll eat him whole (made out of chocolate, of course. Available in shops everywhere in Brussels). Talk about disappointing! Ton had tried to warn me that is was small but would I believe him????? Of course not. Still we had a good laugh, and headed on towards grander things.

Mannekin Pis.

Chocolate Manneken Pis. Larger than the original!

I also knew that if I was in Brussels, I wanted to see the newly opened Magritte Museum. As much as I love the art of Renee Magritte, I was disappointed in his museum. While they had a variety of his work, and it was laid out in my preferred chronological order, the museum seemed to miss a heart. It clearly did NOT have the best of Magritte’s work on display and the pieces they had, while very nice, were poorly displayed in pitch black rooms that were narrow enough that you could not escape the glare on the paintings. I’m not sorry I went, mind you, but I wanted to find the director and give him a stern talking to!
Magritte Museum.

One of the other key things we wanted to do while in Brussels was find the Victor Horta Museum and take a tour. (Ton and I had stumbled on Horta's work on display in the Drenthe Museum in Assen.) Well, let’s just say that didn’t go as expected either! We thought we knew where we were going. Turned out that we didn’t! We must have walked 12 km that afternoon, looking for that house and asking people for directions in Ton’s rather impressive sounding, if slightly broken, French. We did find a fantastic shawarma/falafel shop though, and had lunch. After abandoning all hope, we stumbled upon the right street! The Rue Americain! We were even early! Ton and I both adore Art Nouveau and Art Deco. This house was incredible and did not disappoint! Horta designed every facet of the place, down to the banisters, the doorknobs, the cabinet hinges…everything. It was worth the walk. We would get our fill of Art Deco architecture later, in Antwerp. The only other side note I can add to this excursion is that we were so tired by the time we were through touring the house we decided to take a tram back. The tram was so full that we had to stand. It’s not unusual to have to do this and you get your “tram legs” fairly quickly. Only this time, my tram legs had another lady’s legs wedged between them so that when she stumbled, I stumbled. Luckily, Ton caught me. Unluckily, not before I wrenched my knee so badly that I didn’t think I would make it back to the hotel. I did. But I popped enough Aleve in the next few days to kill a small horse. Or one very tiny Manneken Pis.

Writing this I realize that time has made Brussels more magical for me. While I was there, it was intimidating. It was large. It was dirty. At times, I felt threatened and not at all safe. The city had more than its share of Eastern European women carrying babies and begging for money with outstretched hands and large, dark eyes. But distance has diminished the dirt and danger. I remember now how beautiful it was, the gentle roll of old historic streets. We were only there four days but we saw so very much that it felt like much, much longer. After all, how could you not love a city where you get waffles covered in chocolate and whipped cream at any hour?

Belgian waffle with chocolate and whipped cream.

If you want to see the other photos of Brussels, and be warned there are quite a few! Click onward the Brussels (Bruxelles) Set on Flickr.

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