Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Brussels. The Old City.

Guildhalls, Grand Place

A

fter taking a few minutes to settle into our Airbnb apartment, we decided to head out and explore Brussels.  As tired as we were from our overnight flight from the US, we were both excited to finally be in Brussels and neither of us wanted to waste any more time.

Before leaving on the trip, I had tasked Z with being in charge of navigating us wherever we needed to go.  He took the task on and apparently, has an app on his iPhone that has a map of the city that includes the tourist spots highlighted on it.   So with his iPhone in hand, we set out.  I decided we should start with Grand Place - undoubtedly, the highlight of highlights in Brussels.

It was an overcast day and comfortably cool.  As we walked, I just kept hoping it wouldn't rain.

Our walk would take us, along cobblestone streets, through our neighborhood, Ixelles, to the heart of the old city.   I have been to Europe enough times that the sights around me were nothing new but I am sure that for Z, it was all different.  We've not traveled together before but I'm already getting a sense that he is more of an observer than a talker.  I just hoped he was taking it all in - good sights, bad sights, good sounds, bad sounds.  Everything.


Grand Place.   It took us about 25-30 minutes to walk to Grand Place.  I knew we were close when I could see the tall spire of the City Hall building peeking over the rooftops.  That and the streets were now lined with eateries waiting for hungry tourists to arrive. 


We entered Grand Place to be submerged into a crowd of tourists!  Immediately, my guard went up not because I was afraid of crime but because I was afraid I would lose track of Z!   I get so focused on taking photos, it makes it difficult to keep an eye on the person I'm with - it's especially difficult when you're surrounded by a mob of people.

Thankfully, neither gray skies nor crowds detract from the stunning architecture of the buildings in this city square.  They are as glorious to look at now as they were nine years ago!

Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) on the left, guildhalls on the right.  Town Hall is now home to the Visitors Center.

The spire of Town Hall is capped by is capped by a 3-meter (12 ft) statue of Saint Michael slaying a demon.

Another view of Grand Place with more of the beautiful guildhalls.

The intricate, architectural details of the building facades is beyond stunning and the gold colored paint adds a very elegant and luxurious feel to the facades!


Maison du Roi (King's House) or Broodhuis (Breadhouse), home to the Museum of the City of Brussels.
More of the guildhalls.  The gold colored details looked so shiny and new that we both wondered if they had been receently refreshed.
Another view of Town Hall and guildhalls.
Another view of King's House and guildhalls.

After gazing at the buildings in Grand Place, Z and I spent a few minutes inside the Visitors Center.  I was hoping to get a map and suggestions on what to see and do.  We got the map and as I was looking around for more information, all my eyes could see were brochures for tours and hop on, hop off buses.  I did the hop on, hop off bus in Marrakesh and while they are informative, they are expensive and they take up a lot of time.  We are on a budget and short on time so no bus for us.  We are going on foot!  Luckily for us, old city Brussels is a pretty small place and very walkable.

Looking at the various brochures, I also came to the conclusion that unless you're a real museum person or you want to go on a food tour, there's not a whole lot of anything else to see or do.  I don't know about Z but I can only handle museums in small doses and with all the tourists around, I can only imagine how packed a tour would be.  As I put down the last brochure, I decided we would just wander about the old city - we would see as many of the historic sights as we could in an afternoon and then call it done.

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.  From Grand Place, our next destination was the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.  Our walk took us through the old city where we passed through Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (French) or Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen (Dutch),  a glass covered shopping arcade.  I remembered this place the moment I stepped foot in it because it was here that I bought some cushion covers on my last trip.  It's a beautiful arcade.

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.

The gallery was designed by Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer.  Construction started on May 6, 1846 and the finished gallery was inaugurated on June 20, 1847 by King Leopold and his two sons.

The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is located just a few minutes walk from Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.  You can't miss the church sitting high atop a hill. For a cathedral, it's pretty modest in size but of course, that says nothing of the interior.


The Roman Catholic Church is named after the patron saints of Brussels.


Inside, there were barely any tourists.  As you can expect, it was very quiet inside.  All in all, being in the cathedral was a nice break from the crowds in Grand Place.


Z had told me he's not much of a church/cathedral guy, after having seen more than enough of them on his visit to Italy.  I have to agree, after a while, they all look the same.  Nonetheless, I walked around and took a few photos of the beautiful interior which for some reason had a very masculine feel to it.  Perhaps it was because of the large, heavy stone columns.  It was also a bit dark no thanks to the gray skies outside.


The stained glass windows gave the space elegant pops of color.  They were beautiful.


The organ.
Religous artwork.

On our way to our next destination, we walked around the back of the church.  I love the details of the Gothic style architecture.


The Comic Strip Museum was the next place on our Brussels itinerary.  My plan was to go there and get a map of the Comic Strip Trail to use as a map to take us on a walk about the old city.  We got a bit lost getting there but Z was quickly able to redirect us.  In hindsight, there were a few clues that we were near by but they just didn't click with us that the time.

The museum is housed inside a really old and beautiful building that was built in 1906 and was formerly home to a department store, the Magasins Waucquez.


Indeed, it feels like a department store or maybe the lobby of a grand hotel as you enter in.  On the ground floor there is a restaurant and a gift shop.


Whimsical Belgian comic strip characters are there to greet you.
Clockwise, from top right.  Smurf, young Boule and his cocker spaniel, Bill, and Lucky Luke and his loyal horse, Jolly Jumper.

At the bottom of the staircase leading up to the ticket counter is a stone bust of Tintin alongside a photo of his creator, Georges Remi (aka Hergé) posing with the bust.  Without a doubt, Hergé is the most famous of all the Belgian comic strip artists.  Created sometime in the 1930's,  Tintin is still popular, worldwide, today.


Tintin is even immortalized on a tile embedded on a step riser.

It was a 10 euro entry fee for the museum and since neither one of us was familiar with Belgian comic strips, we decided that we would not appreciate the museum's collection so we opted to not enter.  I was only half surprised to find out that the map cost a euro.  At first, I was not willing to fork over the money but in the end I did.

By now, it was 3:30p and we were both ready to eat.  We asked the guy, behind the ticket counter, for suggestions and he was none too helpful....only telling us that at this time of day, all we could hope for is to try one of the places near Grand Place.  I was thinking we could munch on some of Belgium's famous frites aka French fries to tie us over to dinner time.  So, after a quick stop at the museum, we made our way to our next destination. Along the way, if we spotted a nice place to eat, we would break for a quick meal.

Jeanneke Pis.  We took a short detour to see this little girl.  She's located at the end of a deadend alley.  She sits on a ledge and is protected by a window grate.  I was not impressed.  In fact, if we hadn't been so close by, I don't think I would have even made the detour.


On the other hand, the alley was an interesting place.  There's a very popular bar there and it was filled with patrons.


Food.  Hungry tourists have to eat! On the food front, there are plenty of options in the old city.  To begin with, there are plenty of narrow streets that are fully flanked on both sides by restaurants - serving up everything from traditional Belgian food to Italian and Greek.  I remember these places from my last visit to the city.   Each restaurant has their menu posted up on an easel that sits right next to the walkway.  The moment you even glance at the restaurant, forget even getting near the posted menu, a waiter will seemingly appear from nowhere offering you a table.  At the same time that they are waving you towards the table, they are shouting out the restaurant's offerings which seem to all the same for the restaurants serving up the same type of cuisine.  On my last trip, all I heard were cries of "moules frites" and "spaghetti bolognaise".  That memory was still vivid today!


Of course, frites are a popular snack here and I wanted Z to try them.  We stepped inside a small eatery called Jeanneke Frit and I ordered up a small cone with samurai sauce which is a spicy mayo that I was introduced to on my previous visit.  Z and sat at a table while we waited for our frites to be cooked up.


The frites came and as I had expected, they were delicious - crispy on the outside (thanks to double frying) and soft and creamy on the inside.  I don't know what kind of potatoes they use here but whatever variety they are, the flesh is creamy.....not grainy like what we have in the US.  The small serving of samurai sauce was spicy but not too spicy.  We dug in and in no time, polished off our cone of frites!


Next came something sweet.  Every now and again, I could smell the sweet scent of waffles being cooked up.  I convinced Z to have a go at one.  Unfortunately, we opted for the uber touristy version which means the poor waffle comes overloaded with some combination of fruit, cream and melted chocolate instead of the classic version which is just eaten plain.


 There was store after store selling waffles - proudly displaying their creations in the front window.  There is so much wrong with all this, I don't even know where to begin!


When we weren't eating food, we were gawking at it.  There was so much to drool over.  Today, I held back on taking food photos as we'll be back tomorrow.

Cuberdons, iconic fruit jellies that are a specialty of Ghent.  We'll try them when we get to Ghent.

Nougat filled with very non traditional ingredients like cranberry and ginger.

Our waffle eating experience had taken us back to Grand Place.  We sat on a curb to munch on our overly sweet waffle.  It was good time for some people watching and for me, opportunity to take a few more photos of Grand Place.  It's all in the details here - there's so much to beauty to look at, I don't think I would ever tire of coming here.





Manneken Pis. After staving off hunger pangs with carbs and sugar, we went out in search of the most famous landmark.....the little boy pissing.  I wasn't impressed when I saw him on my previous visit and I'm sorry to say that nothing has changed.  Let's just say I just don't know how to appreciate him.

The obligatory photo op in front of an iconic landmark.


This little guy is so popular that you have to wait your turn up front.  In all honesty, the view from the back is just fine.


Old city Brussels is a very charming place.  Quaint buildings, full of architecural character, fill the narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways. On a side note, I have to admit that walking along the uneven cobblestone streets is hard on the feet!  The soles of my feet are quickly getting sore!


But there's a very artistic side to this old city.

The Art. Whimsical art pieces as well as those that can only be described as *offbeat* can be seen here, there and everywhere you go.  For example, this larger than life sized sculpture of Gaston Lagaffe, a popular Belgian comic strip character.  He stands at the end of the street that the Comic Strip Museum is located on.


Then, there is this art display which was a combination of odd and scary.  She (?) is posted right outside the Comic Strip Museum's front entrance.


Near the entrance of Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is this sculpture of a female cat on a bicycle.  The piece is titled, *La Cycliste* and was created by the artist Alain Séchas.  Believe it or not, it was commissioned by the city of Brussels in 2005 at a cost of 100,000 euros!


We ended up not following the Comic Strip Trail but we did come across several of the large murals.




Even recyling bins were given an artistic make over, presumably illegally done by graffiti artists.


Last but not least, say hello to Madame Chapeau.  She's a depiction of the fictional character Amélie Van Beneden, a colourful character in "Bossemans et Copenolle", a 1938 comedy by Paul van Stalle and Joris d'Hanswijck.  The role was played by a man and when you look at the statue up close, you can indeed recognize that it's actually a man dressed as an old woman!  The life-sized, bronze statue was commissioned by the city of Brussels and was created by the artist Tom Frantzen.  Supposedly, the character and therefore, the statue plays homage to *kwanze* which is best described as the sense of humor that is typical to Brussels.  This is partly reflected in the fact that she stands on the corner of two streets where pickpockets are known to frequent and yet she is overtly carrying an open bag.  Not my sense of humor but she's definitely a statue that brought a smile to my face when I spotted her.


It was almost 6p when we finally decided to leave the old city.  On the way out, I snapped photos of two things you only see in Belgium.

There is no life in Belgium without beer and they proudly display it the front window!

Comic book stores are sure a popular destination here!

Z decided that we should take the long way back to the apartment and so we got to see some of the new city along the way.  That's all covered in the next posting.

I had a good time revisiting the old city.  I'm looking forward to seeing more of it tomorrow.