Bilingual Brussel/Bruxelles (11/06/03)

Last updated 11/13/03                                                                                                                                

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, sits right at the divide between Dutch-speaking northern part (Flanders) and French south of the country (Wallonia), which are now two fairly autonomous states with separate provincial governments. Positioned at the watershed (although still more in the Flemish community), Brussels proudly presents all signs, including street names, in both official languages of Belgium, which makes room for much confusion of visitors. For instance, the main square of the city, and by some accounts the most beatiful central square in all of Europe, is known as Grand Place in the French spelling, but Grote Markt in Dutch... We almost got lost on the way back to the hotel at night, although we just had to follow Rue Royal for most of its length, because a careless glance at the street sign may suggest that you are on Koningsstraat instead of Rue Royal, and only proficiency in both French and Flemish (well, German at worst) will help determine that both names refer to the same street.

Grand Place is indeed a very nice square, surrounded by heavily gilded buildings, but I would hesitate to hand it the title of the grandest central square in Europe; I tend to think that quite a few other cities - from Prague to Brugges - could compete in this area. Most buildings on Grand Place were constructed as guildhouses, i.e. headquarters of wealthy merchant associations (guilds). The square itself dates back to 12th century, but guildhouses were rebuilt after being bombed into oblivion in 1695 by the French. Amusingly, the main target of the bombing -- the city hall (Hotel de Ville) -- survived intact, and is the only original builidng on the square. Its gothic beauty is matched by the creme-colored building on the opposite side of Grand Place, with a 100-meter-high tower. We believe that most of these buildings are now in use by the city administration, office of tourism and some hotels; the ground floor is taken up by restaurants and cafes, all of which have outdoor terrace seating with a great view of the square.

Grand Place was once a central marketplace of the town, as witnessed by the names of streets that extend from it: Rue des Bouchers (butcher's street), Rue de Beurre (butter street) etc. Today Rue des Bouchers is lined with restaurants, and nothing but restaurants: every door and window presents a menu and invites you to a pricey meal of traditional Belgian dishes such as mussels in white wine. Of course the whole place is a tourist trap with barely any decent restaurants, and those of us with smaller appetites and tighter wallets stick to fast-food sandwiches, since baguettes here are as good as in France. One great sandwich chain we discovered is called Panos, they have a tasty selection with some local peculiarities: they use cocktail onions instead of the usual fresh-cut ones, and include boiled egg in their vegetarian sandwich. Well, Europe still thinks that fish is vegetarian, so what can you expect...

For a premium shopping experience (or window-shopping, at the very least), Galeries St.Hubert are the place to be. This is the oldest shopping gallery in Europe with a skylight-type glass ceiling. Among other elite stores, it hosts the Neuhaus which is, despite the "new" in its name, one of oldest chocolate shops in Belgium. The presentation of their chocolates matches the quality: the shopwindow is a genuine masterpiece with chocolates and candy of all forms and colors. Too bad photography is not welcome there. As an interesting gift for our friends, we got a "Christmas calendar" from Neuhaus: it's a wall calendar with 24 windows (for each day from December 1st to the Christmas Eve), and you are supposed to open one window each day and eat the chocolate hidden behind it. Or, if you are impatient, you can imagine that it's one chocolate for each of the 24 hours of the day :-)

Finally, let me describe the impression made by the most famous statue of Brussels, known as the self-proclaimed symbol of the city: Manneken Pis, that is, "the peeing boy". This sculpture is truly unforgettable in its disappointing effect, because it is SO SMALL. Even if your guidebook tells you so in advance, you really cannot prepare yourself for this sight. The thing is tiny and utterly insignificant! Yes, it's a statue of a small boy urinating into a small basin, and that's really all it is. The legend behind the statue is confusing and thus dubious: it's either a boy who extinguished some fire in the city, or a child of a local nobleman. The only confirmed fact is that the current bronze statue was sculpted in 1619, and a stone version had been in the same spot from the 14th century. Of course, the issue is hyped out of proportion, and in souvenier shops you can buy chocolate coins with Manneken Pis, keychains, bottle openers, fridge magnets, lollipops, other countless imitations and copies of the statue in all sizes (including ones much bigger than the original). I'm only glad that there was nothing else disappointing about Brussels, once you've come to accept Manneken Pis for what it is.

Now my 2 cents on Brussels.... Daria is on the mark about the Manneken Pis -- there's a reason why on the Belgium section of Europe on a Shoestring they list just one thing to "avoid at all costs" and that is the Manneken Pis -- it also calls it a "feeble tourist attraction" which is a compliment in my opinion! Other than that, I was beginning to feel that Belgium doesn't give much love to PLUS or INTERLINK (the 2 card systems supported by our Bank of America ATM card) until we arrived in Brussels. We were finally able to withdraw cash from a CitiBank ATM near the train station, so if any of you visitors to Belgium want to know an ATM that'll give you money, give that one a try. By the way, as another rant on the Manneken Pis, there's also a female version of that statue called Jeanneke Pis -- I'm so glad that we didn't visit that one too.


                            Buildings on Grand Place

                     Where to indulge in shopping and dining, then atone for those sins

                     Odds and ends of Brussels architecture (left) and sculpture (below)