Brussels — waffles, chocolate, frites, beer, cartoons, architecture and a ubiquitous urinating boy

(This is the second in a series of posts about my spring break trip to Belgium and the Netherlands)

Are you worried about a possible federal government shutdown? Did you know that Belgium currently has NO government? They haven’t had one since last June, and on March 29, they broke the 289-day record previously held by Iraq. Go Belgium!

What’s most bizarre about that is that Belgians don’t seem too shook up about it. Life goes on. Things get done.

Brussels, Belgium’s capital, is also the de facto capital of the European Union. Go figure.

Bruxelles is a mostly French-speaking city in the middle of the Flemish (Dutch)-speaking Flanders portion of Belgium. Go figure some more and let me know when you get it figured out.

And by the way, Belgium is where “French Fries” originated — but you knew that one already.

Now this is what I call Europe! (all photos by Steve Date)

Brussels (or Brussel or Bruxelles, depending on your language preference) is not usually considered an “A-list” destination for tourists. People from outside Europe might dream of going to Paris, Rome, London or maybe Venice, Prague, Barcelona . . . but Brussels? Hmmm . . . maybe on the way to somewhere else.

But it’s a beautiful, complex city that grows on you. Kind of like the quiet sister of the homecoming queen, it can be just as interesting as its more popular, outgoing sibling (and maybe even more appealing in many ways) — if you just make a bit of an effort to get acquainted.

We arrived by train in a sleep-deprived state from Amsterdam (see previous post) at about noon on Saturday, March 19. For some reason, the street layout confused me (not a particularly difficult thing to do) and we walked around for a while before finding our hotel, which was less than a mile from the central train station.

View down to the little courtyard from our 3rd-floor room. Not sure what was legendary about the place, but it was very nice and a good value.

We stayed at a “Hotel La Legende”. Now might be a good time to disclose our European hotel priorities – old (hopefully with some character), clean, priced around $100 (€75-80), and fairly centrally located. If any kind of buffet-style breakfast is included it’s a big bonus. Also we’ve (mostly the Mrs.) added shower-and-toilette-in-room (“en suite” as opposed to shared) as a high priority in recent years. La Legende got high marks on all of these categories and we felt it was a great deal at a rate of €75 a night, tax included.

We’ve chosen to book hotels ahead of time on these trips, for several reasons. With the internet, you can (usually) get a fairly good idea of what you’re going to get, especially if you’re willing to spend some time on travel advice sites such as TripAdvisor. I’m all for spontaneity, but on a brief trip to a country where you don’t speak the language, it’s much easier having a reservation than spending time schlepping your bags from door to door asking about availability and prices.

On this trip, we also pre-paid for our hotels for two reasons — first, you get a slight discount and second, you can use a credit card, which is not quite as welcomed in some parts of Europe as in the U.S. (see future Amsterdam post). When you do use one in Europe, you usually pay more than you would for using cash. So it was cheaper and one less thing to worry about.

So what did we do during our 44 hours in Brussels?

I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on this, or any city I visit for the first time. But I would like to share some of my experiences with you.

Time for another priority disclosure — walk, walk, walk. Most of what I’m interested in seeing in European cities is outdoors, on the streets and sidewalks. Ordinary people doing what they ordinarily do. The resulting experience is a combination of stuff you’re “supposed” to see with things you notice along the way. That’s where the fun is.

Crossing the street can unexpectedly become a moment of joy. (photo by Steve Date)

Here’s a rundown of some of the things we did that Brussels is known for. If you’re interested in more photos of things I noticed along the way, go to my Flickr set about Brussels.

1) Belgian Waffles
They’re fresh, they’re covered with more stuff than you can imagine, and they’re everywhere.

2) Chocolate
Easter season in the world’s chocolate capital? Use your imagination.

3) Pommes frites
Ate quite a few spuds. Much more about this in the next post about Bruges.

4) Beer
OK, I was going to hold off on little pisser-boy until the end, but it’s a beer picture, too — a “twofer”. Much more about beer in the next post as well.

5) Cartoons
I didn’t realize that Brussels is also the cartoon and comic strip capital until I started reading the guidebooks. The Smurfs came from there, as well as Tintin, the young Belgian reporter who, with his dog Milou, has adventures all over the world as well as in space. The Belgian Comic Strip Center is a unique museum that’s worth a visit.

Tintin follows Captain Haddock down a fire escape in this mural (blue vertical wall in the center). There are 30 of these comic strip murals spread around Brussels. (photo by Steve Date)

6) Architecture
Brussels survived WWII with most of its old buildings intact. The Grote Markt, or “Grand Place” is an amazing central square, surrounding by beautifully ornate buildings, including the “guild houses”, tracing their ancestry back to the medieval guilds. This public space is a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.

The Grote Markt (photo by Steve Date)

Brussels also makes a claim as the capital of Art Nouveau (enough with the capitals, right?) There are many beautiful examples by Victor Horta as well as others. A walk through the Square Ambiorix area reveals some stunning houses.

The slender Saint-Cyr House on Square Ambiorix was designed by Gustave Strauven, a student of Victor Horta. (photo by Steve Date)

7) And finally . . . . the impertinent, naked young lad who shows up EVERYWHERE.

Here's the little guy high on his perch showing how he feels about the tourists snapping pictures.

From Wikipedia: “Manneken Pis (help·info) (literally Little Man Pee in Marols, a Dutch dialect spoken in Brussels, also known in French as le Petit Julien), is a famous Brussels landmark. It is a small bronze fountain sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. It was designed by Jerome Duquesnoy and put in place in 1618 or 1619.”

There are a half-dozen theories about the historic scene he’s commemorating — a couple of them have to do with urinating on opposing armies. I like those the best.

I hate to aid in promoting something like this as THE symbol of a city as beautiful as Brussels is, but the reality is that they do it themselves — no other single image is as widespread in store windows, knock-off statues and tourism brochures as this thing. So here are a few of the endless variations on this bladder-emptying theme. You have to admit, they do have fun with it.

Here he is helping to sell candy.

I find this utilitarian version kind of frightening

Waffles here! Get 'em while they're . . . hang on a second . . . aaaaahhh, that's better.

Who could have imagined in 1619 that it would come to this?

Well, I’ve gone on far too long and didn’t even talk about restaurants, museums, parks, neighborhoods or a bunch of other stuff that people are interested in. I’m not a very good travel writer, I guess.

I’ll try to do better in my next installment. Back on the train after two nights in the capital of everything.

Soon we’ll be “In Bruges”. (Rent the movie if you haven’t seen it. It’s pretty good)

To see more of my photos from Brussels, go here.

Spring break in Europe: 1st of a series

As a teacher, I get quite a few weeks off every year (not as many as you might think, but that’s another discussion). Travel abroad during the summer months and around Christmas is expensive and crowded. So Mrs. D and I have often used my week off in the spring to travel, usually adding a Friday or Monday to make a 10-day trip.

We’ve taken 7 spring break trips to Europe (plus a winter break trip to Spain) beginning with a visit to France with the kids in 1999. People tell me they wouldn’t go for that short amount of time, but it’s actually quite nice if you take it for what it is and don’t plan to do too much. I’ve learned through experience that it can be unnecessarily stressful and tiring if you have an unrealistic itinerary.

We hadn’t gone on any vacation for 3 years. Airfares had been high, the exchange rate not great, and home repairs and improvements were eating up funds. But it was time to go somewhere again. We decided that if a decent airfare popped up, we’d grab it. $900 – $1,000 was too much, and that’s where they hovered for a few weeks. Finally, when a $645 fare from MSP to Amsterdam appeared, we grabbed it.

So we decided on 3 cities we hadn’t been to — Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels. (Mrs D had been to Amsterdam many years ago)

After arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at about 8:30 AM on Saturday, we hopped on a train at the convenient airport station and headed for Brussels.

From the train between Amsterdam and Brussels

The first day after an overnight flight is a tired, bleary-eyed affair, so rather than stumble around Amsterdam waiting for our hotel room to be available, we decided to watch the countryside go by for 2 and a half more hours, then start the week in Belgium and work our way back to Amsterdam.

We rode past early-blooming bulb fields.

I’ve rented cars in Europe several times, but the train has a lot of advantages, especially if you’re spending a large amount of time in cities. First and foremost, it’s relaxing. You just float along and look at the scenery. It’s not always beautiful, but it’s usually interesting.

There's a fair amount of this kind of scenery on the train, too. In many areas, Europe is just as ugly as the U.S.

I think this guy was trying to race us.

My first mishap of the trip happened as the train pulled into the station in Brussels. I realized my new jacket (the only one I had brought) was not in the luggage rack with my suitcase. Who knows why. There were multiple opportunities for forgetfulness between Amsterdam and here and anybody who knows me knows that I will take advantage of every opportunity to leave something behind. Oh well . . . or I should say, “C’est La Vie”. I was in Bruxelles and it was going to be fun — jacket or not.

I’ll post soon about our two days in the city of waffles, cartoons, pommes frites, beer, and a certain little boy who urinates all over town. Au revoir!