Belgium is a country worth exploring. Brussels is a beautiful, romantic city while Bruges is an enchanting, medieval town – some have deemed it the Venice of the North. Ger and I traveled to Belgium in late October to visit family and got to explore both. We had a truly wonderful time and would recommend a trip to Belgium to anyone.
Our first day in Brussels, we met Ger’s Aunt, Ann, at the Berlaymont Building post-flight. The Berlaymont Building houses the headquarters of the European Union (EU), which serves as the executive branch of the EU. Ann worked for former Irish Commissioners, so she knew the ins and outs of the place. She treated us to a cappuccino in the Berlaymount Cafe then we toured around the building paying a visit to the current Irish Commissioners office (Phil Hogan) and exploring the infamous 13th floor (where the Commission’s meeting room is located). It was surreal to be so close to all of the action. We’ll remember it always.
Post Berlaymont, we went for a walk around the city. Along the way we stopped into a 13th century Cathedral – Saint Michael and Saint Gudula Cathedral. It was breathtaking inside with huge knaves, an incredibly detailed choir, a massive organ, and beautiful stained glass windows. There was lot of fine modern art there as well: it was a nice contrast to the antique beauty of the building.
We then found our way to the Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert (Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen in Dutch) known for its luxury shops, outdoor cafes, and stunning architecture. The gallery construction was started in 1846 and completed in 1847. It’s motto”Omnibus omnia” (everything for everybody) is displayed in the front of the facade. We enjoyed an impromptu “Belgium chocolate shop hop” of sorts throughout the galleries as well, tasting all kinds of chocolate goodness. The chocolate is a different kind of fabulous in Belgium – I don’t think I’ve ever had better.
Not far from the Royal Galleries is the Grand Place – the central square of Brussels. The aesthetic goodness and decorative detail that surrounds it is astonishing. Some consider it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world and it is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The square dates back to the 12th century but the buildings in the square today date back only to the 17th century. In 1695, the majority of the buildings in the square were destroyed from three days of bombardment inflicted by the troops of Louis XIV in at the height of Brussels mercantile success. Today, the Grand-Place stands as a reflection of the square destroyed by the French. Rather then rebuild the square in contemporary style (as was common), the people of Brussels chose to rebuild it as a reflection of its former glory. Thus, making the Grand Place a testament for all to enjoy today.
After a stroll around the Grand Place, we arrived at the Mannekin Pis (meaning “small man” in Dutch). It’s such a famous statue for something so small. There are many legends surrounding this infamous bronze statue, but, the most famous being that of Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. In 1142, Duke Godfrey was a two-year old Lord. His troops were battling against the troops of the Berthouts in what is now known as Neder-Over-Heembeek in Brussels. It is said that the troops of Leuven put the infant lord, Godfrey, in a basket and hung the basket in a tree to encourage them. From the tree, the little boy urinated on the troops of the Berthouts who eventually lost the battle. Thus, the infamous Mannekin Pis statue in Brussels. Nowadays, the statue is seen as symbol of the people of the city, embodying their sense of humor and independence of thought.
In 1985, the small bronze statue, Jeanneke Pis was commissioned. It is known as the counterpart to the Manneken Pis. The statue depicts a little girl squatting and urinating. She is hard to see in the picture below as the statue has been vandalized numerous times and needed to have bars put around it to keep it safe. I fully appreciate the people of Brussels erecting a female version of the Manneken Pis – very progressive thinking!
Towards the end of the day, we found ourselves at the Delirium Cafe. This infamous bar has a book, yes a book, that lists over 3000 Belgian (and other) beers from which to order. It also has its own very tasty brews. We spent a few hours here indulging our taste buds with Belgian beers – our favorites of which were Kwak and Tripel. Please try them, they are so worth it. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get a really funky glass/stand from which to drink Kwak. You can learn more about both beers distilled at Bosteels Brewery here.
The next day, we headed to Bruges. I had heard only fabulous things about this medieval town on water, so I couldn’t wait to see it. And, it did not disappoint. Bruges came to importance in the 12th century as it was strategically located on a tidal inlet and thus crucial for commerce. The city was initially a series of fortifications built by Romans in the first century to protect settlements against pirates, but the medieval city is what remains today. As I mentioned earlier, it is refereed to as the Venice of the North due to it being a canal-based town. And, it has numerous architectural and historic gems to explore.
After taking in some of the town, we made our way to Church of Our Lady, known for its towering steeple (377 feet) that dominates the city skyline as well as housing a Carrara marble Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. The church took two centuries to build (from the 13th to the 15th) and is beautiful inside. There are some pictures below.
After soaking up some of the history of Bruges, we headed for a beer tasting at Brewery Bourgogne des Flandres on the canal. The tasting flights we got were massive! They really know how to enjoy beer in Belgium ;). We sat outside beside the canal drinking our flight and watching the canal boat tours go by. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon.
Post beer tasting, we wandered through the historic city center which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was amazing. If you haven’t seen the movie, In Bruges, you should watch it. It’s quite quirky, but depicts Bruges in a wonderful light and the city center (pictured below) is featured throughout.
The next morning, we headed for a game of golf at Chateau de la Trounette. It was my first experience with an English walking course and it was lovely. Ger played very well – I opted out of playing as I was likely to injure someone with my lack of golf talent.
Then, we drove to Waterloo Battlefield. What a massive battle site. It reminded be a bit of Gettysburg in the states. The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815. Waterloo is significant because it was known as Napoleon’s last stand in which he was defeated by a joint British/Prussian army. The defeat at Waterloo ended Napoleon’s rule as Emperor of the French. Almost 50,000 soldiers died in the Battle of Waterloo and the Lion’s Mound (pictured below) serves as a memorial to all those who lost their lives that day. The Mound has 225 steps which lead up to the statue and its surrounding overlook where there are maps documenting the epic battle. We were lucky enough to watch the sunset at the top of The Mound – it was a gorgeous, yet humble experience.
Our last morning in Brussels, Ann and Kieran took us on a tour of the city. We got to stroll in the Cinquantenaire (a lovely large park in the city), soak up the views of the Royal Palace of Brussels (built in 1900, it still serves as the King’s administrative residence and main workplace), and explore the Église Notre-Dame du Sablon, a cathedral constructed in 1304. We also took as stroll thru a lovely sculpture park adjacent to the cathedral and went for a quick chocolate tasting at the best chocolatier in Brussels – Pierre Marcolini’s. His chocolate is famous and known for not being cheap, but for a reason – he only buys unprocessed cocoa beans directly from producers all over the world, thus producing the best chocolate in Brussels! It was a real treat.
Albeit quick, it was a truly wonderful trip. We can’t wait to go back to explore more. Until then, as the Dutch say, vaarwel!