Monday, 14 July 2008

Brussels is not just the name of a sprout

Contrary to prevailing beliefs, Belgium was not constructed for, or by, tourists as a stop-over on their way to France from the Netherlands, or vice versa. There are people who actually live there. Ten million, in fact. And Brussels is not just the name of a sprout.
It is also home to about a million people, of all colours, shapes and nationalities. It is the office desk of Europe, the centre of NATO and the EC, and the headquarter of over 1000 other international associations.
Brussels is a wonderful city; thriving, lively and of a human dimension. It is less frenetic than other European capitals and you can enjoy it at leisure, sipping a cup of coffee in one of the many cafés dotted across the city, or dipping fried chips in mayonnaise. The best way to get acquainted with the Belgian capital is to put on your most comfortable shoes and walk.

The Grand' Place is a good place to start. It is central, well known, and typifies the city. This historic square is enclosed by a magnificent architectural work of art, housing the town hall, a museum of the city and a selection of up-market restaurants. It is particularly beautiful at night when its buildings are illuminated. On Sunday the square transform into a chattering and colourful bird market, where you can buy live worms by the kilo. In the weeks leading up to Christmas the Grand’ Place becomes the Marché de Noël, a life-size nativity scene, with real sheep munching hay (and Belgian chocolates thrown in by tourists) in the makeshift Bethlehem stable, while an inanimate Joseph and Mary look on. In the summer the Grand’ Place plays centre stage to the annual Jazz Festival, one of the most enjoyable events in Brussels.

The narrow alleyways leading out of the square are lined with restaurants specialising in seafood: crabs, lobsters, mussels, scorpion, seashells, seaweeds ... the entire sea’s offering, short of the mermaid. "Would you like to eat my friend?" enquired one waiter, in an attempt to pull in punters. Given the wide choice on display, I was not sure whether this was an initiation into cannibalism, or just an absence of verbal punctuation.

Fortunately, Belgians speak English well and are very friendly to tourists. But not to other Belgians. As soon as your arrive you become aware of ‘the language problem’ in the city. Belgium is divided into either French speaking or Flemish speaking regions. [Note: Flemish is not the same as Dutch – at least not to Flemish speakers.] Brussels is the one exception. It is a fortified bastion of bilingualism, enshrined in law and protected by its inhabitants. Everything is in duplicate: street names, official notices, cooking instructions, advertisements and public announcements are all offered in French and Flemish. The Belgians themselves, however, are monolingual. Which is why there are millions of Belgians unable to converse with one another. Or wanting to.

New York has the Statue of Liberty, Copenhagen has the mermaid and Brussels has the Manneken Pis. Why a small side-street statue – barely 60 cm – of a little boy continuously answering the call of nature should become a tourist attraction, remains a mystery, as does the history of this wee boy. Sculpted in 1619, the Manneken Pis has survived wars, kidnapping, wilful damage and all manner of official ceremonies. He is regularly dressed up in outfits, and over the centuries, has accumulated over 600 costumes. Numerous urban legends attempt to explain why and how he got there, including the assertion that he was extinguishing a fuse attached to a bomb destined to destroy Brussels' town hall. Another version claims that the little boy relieved himself against the door of a witch who was so angry that she turned him into a statue. A third account has it that a man who lost his little son sent a search party who found him, peeing. The father, ecstatic with joy, decided to immortalise the happy moment. The history and origin of the peeing statuette will most likely never be resolved. But here’s a little-known fact: the Manneken Pis has a sister, "Jeanneke Pis", a little girl engaged in the same activity, at the bottom of a blind alley, in the rue des Bouchers.

There are many alluring features of Belgium. The weather is not one of them. Fortunately you can seek shelter from the elements in one of the many museums which cater to all ages and tastes. The Museum of Musical Instruments is a true gem, exhibiting over 1,500 instruments. Did you know that Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was Belgian?

If walking with dinosaurs is your thing, run along to the Natural History museum. It took 65 million years to put together. Ten of the largest and most beautiful dinosaurs, including the only full skeleton of an Iguanodon, are on display until the end of May. Bernissart, in northwest Belgium, was the site of the first dinosaurs ever unearthed.

Art is Belgium’s pride and joy. There are a number of excellent art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art which displays Belgian surrealist’s René Magritte’s works. But the Antoine Wiertz Museum, is something else: the 19th Century artist was either a genius or a madman. Possibly both. The museum, formerly the artist’s home, contains his life’s work depicting gigantic rebellious angels, Trojan Greeks, giants, genitals and crucifixes. It is an artistic riot. There’s a bit of everything for everyone.

If you’re looking for something to absorb the kids, head for the Comic Museum. A whole museum dedicated to Tin Tin, his faithful terrier, Snowy (pronounce Milou) and the cantankerous Captain Haddock. It contains sketches and drawing of the much loved Belgian adventurer, by his creator, George Rémi (pronounced: Hergé). For those of us of a certain vintage, the musée du cinéma is a trip down memory lane. You can try out optical instruments – the precursors to modern-day cinema and fiddle with hands-on exhibits. The exhibition maintains costumes, models, decorations, and posters from old films and television shows. Its highlight is undoubtedly the daily screening of authentic silent movies, with live piano accompaniment.

There are also some more out-of-the-ordinary museums, such as the Museum of the Elevator. Or the Museum of Bookbinding. Or lace-making. Then there is the museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, which traces the history of chocolate from its discovery of the pink cocoa plant by the Aztecs, through its importation to, and exploitation by, Europe. And yes, you get to taste samples.

Belgium is the chocophile’s paradise. The country produces 172,000 tons of this sweet solid per year and boasts 2,130 chocolate shops in the country. Many chocolatiers still make their pralines by hand. Neuhaus, Godiva, Leonidas and Côte d'Or, are all Belgian chocolates worth investigating. Chocolate triggers the secretion of hormones that make you happy, counteracts depression, eases stress and reduces depression. In other words chocolate is medicinal, so indulge without being tortured by guilt pangs. For those addicted to chocolate, remember the 12-step chocoholics program: never be more than 12 steps away from chocolate.

The year 2003 marks the 25th anniversary of poet, singer, actor and boozer Jacques Brel's death. He is immortalised in an exhibition entitled Brel, The Right to Dream - a splendid homage to one of the most famous and prolific French-language singer and writer. The exhibition contains many of Brel's unpublished documents and includes video interviews and a moving rendition of his most famous song: Ne Me Quitte Pas. The displays guide you through his life, from the years spent wandering in Brussels to his final departure, leaving you wandering why he departed. If you can forgive him for his incorrigible misogyny, it’s definitely worth a visit.

If you’re a freak for unconventional shopping, or a bargain spotter, the flea market is unmissable. Every morning, from 6 am until the early afternoon, vendors sell anything from books with missing pages, well used garters, and old vinyl records. You can also buy used bikes, engraved African fruit bowls and fake oil paintings. You may haggle – and are expected to - but do not ask for the provenance of the items. On Sundays, the Midi market is the place to go for food and clothes shopping.

Finally, you cannot visit Brussels without paying a visit to one of its many beer haunts. The choice of beer is seemingly endless; Belgium has around four hundred different kinds of beer. My own favourite is the Kriek – a dark red sweet cherry-based beer. The raspberry beer is also excellent, as is the peach beer. There are literally hundreds of hidden corners to enjoy the Belgian fizz. Le Cerceuil serves customers beers on a … coffin, or you can sip a glass at the wonderful Toone Puppet Theater, where beautiful marionettes perform classical operas - if you can find it. Goupil is famed for its original juke-box which churns out old French classics – and for its exorbitant beer prices.

The Belgians are a friendly bunch and Brussels is a wonderful holiday destination all year round.
Caption: Manneken Pis, but few can attract so many visitors.

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