The One with Brussels, Belgium


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

After a few days in Amsterdam, we packed up and drove to Brussels, Belgium! Everyone took a quick nap then we walked outside to catch the tram into the old town center.
600 years ago Brussels was just a nice place to stop and buy a waffle on the way to the economic powerhouse of Bruges. With no strategic importance, it was allowed to grow as a free trading town. Today it's a city of one million people, the capital of Belgium, the headquarters of NATO, and the seat of the European Union. Brussels enjoyed a Golden Age of peace and prosperity (1400-1550) while England and France were duking it out in the Hundred Years' War. It was then that many of the fine structures that distinguish the city today were built. In the late 1800s, Brussels had another growth spurt, fueled by industrialization, wealth taken from the Belgian Congo, and the exhilaration of the country's recent independence (1830). City expansion peaked at the end of the 19th century when the "Builder King" Leopold II erected grand monuments and palaces.
Our airbnb apartment (about $100/night) was located conveniently near a tram that went right into the heart of the city. Usually I just use the pictures from the airbnb website because they're nice and better than ones I could take, but that's not the case this time and I should have taken pictures! It was much lighter and brighter and welcoming than these photos:
Once in the town center, we came to the Bourse - the former stock exchange building built in the 1870s.
Then we dove into the focal point of Brussels, the Grand Place! Brussels, for a city of its size and importance is relatively low on great sights, but high on ambience. We took full advantage of just soaking in the Belgian good life.
The Grand Place is Brussels' main square and the city's best sight. The town hall (in the photo above) has the square's tallest spire and serves as the centerpiece.  Also on the square, in the photo below, is the City Museum which is housed in the King's House.
The square served as the town's market for 1000 years. Today, shops continue that tradition.
The best part of the Grand Place? The square is lined with chocolate shops. Godiva, Neuhaus, Galler, and Leonidas all have stores ringing the plaza. Heck yes.
The Evans Family in the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday April 15th 2015.
We couldn't go too long without getting another cone-o-fries. So good. I don't think we ever sat down for a proper meal while we were sightseeing in the Netherlands and Belgium because we were always just snacking on fries and waffles and chocolates. When in Rome Brussels!
Our first chocolate shop stop on the square was Godiva. With the top reputation internationally, Godiva is synonmous with fine Belgian chocolate. This store was the company's first (est. in 1937).
Chocolate covered strawberry/squinty selfie? Check.
Just down from Godiva was what became our favorite Belgian chocolate shop: Neuhaus. Neuhaus has been encouraging local chocoholics since 1857. If you're in Belgium, find a Neuhaus and buy any of the "irresitables" collection. So. freaking. good.
More chocolates for sale. What a wonderful town :)
Even more chocolate shops! The stereotypes of Belgium are blissfully true!

Also on the Grand Place is the Swan House which once housed a bar where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels met in February of 1848 to write their Communist Manifesto. Chris expressed his feelings about that.
 Big ol' golden statue.
Leaving the Grand Place we passed through the park-like Agora square, named after the markets of ancient Greece.
Just beyond the Agora is the glorious Galeries Royales St. Hubert, Europe's oldest still-operating shopping-mall, built in 1847.
The term "shopping-mall" doesn't really do this place justice. You won't find any GAPs or H&Ms. Instead you'll find hat, cane, umbrella, and chocolate stores, along with bespoke shoemakers, lace shops, and some cafes.
This galleria served as the glass-covered model that inspired many other shopping centers in Paris, London, and beyond. It celebrated the town's new modern attitude after they gained their independence from the Netherlands. Built in an age of expansion and industrialization, the mall demonstrated efficient modern living with elegant apartments upstairs above trendy shops, theaters, and cafes. Originally you had to pay to get in to see its fancy shops and that elite sensibility survives today. People still live in the apartments upstairs.
After enjoying the Neo-Renaissance splendor of the Galeries Royales, we popped back out into the sunshine. It was a lovely day. The Church of St. Nicholas sits on a spot where a church has been since the 12th century. The current building was rebuilt 300 years ago with money provided by the town's jewelers.
Just off the Grand Place is a brass statue of a reclining man, Mayor Evrard't Serclase, who in 1356 bravely refused to surrender the keys of the city to invaders and so he was tortured and killed. Touch him and his misfortune becomes your good luck. Judging by the reverence that locals treat this ritual, there might just be something to it. Here's hoping my dream comes true!
Well, after all that walking (and chocolate eating) it was waffle time! We found a stand that had a nice long line (it must be good!) and got some waffles. The plain waffle was only 1 euro then you could add on a wide array of toppings: caramel, chocolate, nutella, cream, strawberries, banana, kiwi, etc.
The Evans family pigging out. Have I mentioned how wonderful Belgium is?
Darling Jane.
Fox likes to sit in the stroller as we "adventure." Jane likes to walk. Kinda.
On the side of a nearby building is a comic strip panel depicting that favorite of Belgian comic heroes, Tintin, climbing a fire escape. Dozens of these building-sized comic-strip panels decorate Brussels celebrating Belgian's favorite medium.
Our destination was the famous, and infamous, Manneken-Pis. This bronze statue is under two feet tall, practically the size of a newborn. The little peeing boy is an appropriate low-key symbol for the unpretentious Bruxelloise. The statue was made in 1619 to provide drinking water for the neighborhood. Notice that the baby, sculpted in Renaissance style, actually has the musculature of a man instead of the pudgy limbs of a child. The statue was knighted by King Louis XV - so French soldiers had to salute the eternally peeing lad when they passed.
The statue even dresses up for special occasions. A sign nearby lists the festival days and how he'll be dressed. For example, on Jan. 8, Elvis Presley's birthday, he'll be an Elvis impersonator.
Leaving behind the watery-tyke, we headed up to the Upper Town.
The Palace of Justice was covered in scaffolding.
I love views, but these flat countries didn't give us too many chances. This was about the best view we got in Brussels from a platform near the Palace of Justice.
FYI, this is what the main square looks like during a festival and when the pretty buildings at the opposite end aren't covered in scaffolding like they were when we went (though there wasn't scaffolding on the left buildings like there is here.... dang scaffolding, grrr :)
Then we walked back to where we started and took the tram back to our apartment, full of fries, chocolate, and waffles. Yum, yum, and yum.
Paige Taylor Evans © // Quinn Creatives DESIGN