While Rachel and really look forward to our larger week long trips, we often find it is the quick overnighters we make to closer destinations that we enjoy more. Perhaps it is because we reserve the weekend getaway trips to locales that require less planning, and fewer sites to see. We’ve found that these places are far more relaxing, because that’s often all there is to do. Our trips to Kos, Greece, Strausberg, France and up to Oslo, Norway fall into this category. As does our trip this weekend to Brussels.
Nestled in the heart of Belgium, Brussels is pretty laid back for a capitol city. Travel guide demi-god Rick Steve called it an “earthier” place, though earthy often translates into seedier. However, we found it a perfect and charming getaway spot for us. It was easy to navigate through, and most places were a short walk from our hotel room. This was my 2nd trip to Belgium, the previous being a work day trip up to SHAPE headquarters. I was eager to come back with Rachel and experience it bit more in earnest.
I had had a curious conversation once with a passenger about Belgium returning from, well, somewhere, and I was eager to explore it for myself. The passenger, a thoroughly European gentleman, had told me that Belgium was considered the lost country of Europe. That it had no identity of its own, and could easily be dissolved in our lifetime.
His point was that Belgium is a country split in half by cultures. The northern half spoke Dutch and aligned itself politically with its northern neighbor, Holland. The southern half of Belgium spoke French and was very much an ideological and economical ally of its southern neighbor France. Even the national government and its senators were split in half between French speaking French sympathizers and Flemish speaking Dutch supporters. The North rarely agrees with, or gives any concern to, the happenings of its Southern countrymen and vice-versa.
Because of the dichotomy of opposing cultures, Belgium itself is often viewed as lacking in its own distinct voice, and no culture to call its own. The somewhat brash gentleman I spoke with even went as far as to call it “soulless.” Wow, bold words.
So with those foreboding words, Rachel and I decided to find out for ourselves what was up with Belgium. With Columbus day Friday, we had a three day weekend (Thanks Chris), and decided to drive up to Brussels, our 5 lb Yorkie, Ally, in tow. Settling into our small but affordable accommodations (Thanks Priceline), we got the lowdown on the area from the hotel clerk. After drawing an interesting orange line across the bottom corner of the map, he then proceeded to circle all sorts of interesting items and landmarks for us to check out: Belgium beer museums, city halls, and famous statues.
Looking back over the map, of course Rachel was like “what’s up with the Orange line?” The clerk looked a little embarrassed and said in his broken French/English “I would not suggest you into that area. That neighborhood is, uhm, very Muslim, and does not *appreciate* Americans they way we do.”
Wow, …fascinating. Rachel and I had been in many Muslim areas, not least of which was Istanbul, and hadn’t felt mistreated or prejudiced against. But it was his town, it would be unwise to disregard such clear advice from a local.
So heading off into town (the opposite direction from said Orange line of doom), we were immediately struck by how light hearted the (rest of the) town was. There were buzzing cafes on every corners, many with inviting fireplaces right in the foyer. Turns out Brussels does have some charm, it’s just so much more laid back than you’d expect. I felt like a grown kid in that place. We walked into many a crowded ice cream shop without a kid in site. Just long lines of adults looking for their ice cream, chocolate, whipped cream and banana covered waffle fix (soooooo good). Plus anything dipped into a 6 foot chocolate fondue is just amazing (wow, is anyone else getting hungry?).
Oh, and how about this? They have a whole area of town dedicated to …comic books. They have giant cartoon statues, and huge murals up on all the walls and over the shop stores. Yep, they even have a comic book museum. Did you know that the Smurfs were created in Belgium? Yep, they started off as comic strips. Expect here they are called Les Schtroumpfs. We passed store after store of comics, and Smurf toys. Even marionnettes toys had their own house. On every block there was a qwirky statue, and in every window there were flowers. You got the sense that Brussels strove to be a bit rebellious in its take on the majestic and quasi-imposing European city-center stereotype.
And while the countless dozens of statues we passed ranged from the surreal, to the metephorical, to the just plain hilarious, the one the town is famous for is this little 18 inch tall fellow, the “Manneken Pis.” Yep, a tiny boy peeing. That’s there most famous landmark. And the town is obsessed with him, from tin dolls, to chocolate recreations in every color. Brussels is that kind of town. Its apparent mission in life is simply to take it less seriously.
Of course, Belgium is known for other things besides chocolate and Smurfette. It seems to have this beer thing down pretty well. From its world renowned Chimay beers (considered by many to be the best in the world), to its Duvels, you have your choice of brews walking into any local pub. Imagine walking into your local 7-11 and seeing a beer shelf that looks like this? Yep, beer sold by the wine bottle. Or, imagine just having one of these on every corner. Many shops were even broken into his and her, with 1 side being chocolate and the other side being beer. Hilarious
Touring the one of many local beer museums it is clear that making beer, and even its very pouring into a glass (which involves two ‘cleansings’ and a shave apparently) is a craft taken very seriously in these parts (yikes, now is anyone else getting thirsty?).
Of course this is Brussels, so you’ll find a variety of anecdotes to the typical stuffy, hard wooded European bars. None exemplify the anti-Europe bar more than Le Cercueil bar, which translates into Coffin bar. Yes, you can drink your hand crafted Chimay beer out of a faux skull while resting it on a not-so-faux coffin. Yep, the whole place is lit by black light and is very macabre. How’s that for non-traditional?
Back on the lighter side, no trip to Brussels is complete without a visit to its old 1958 World fair grounds. After all, where else ya gonna find a 33 story atom. Yes, the Atomium, as its referred to, is a giant 9 sphered atomic replication of the element Iron. When looking for a symbol of it’s world fair, the Atomic Age seemed a good theme, and thus work began on the world’s largest smallest object. And this is not just a piece of art. The tubes have escalators and each sphere has a viewing area. You can even eat dinner in the atom’s top neutron.
So while the Atomium represents life put under a giant microscope, the areas adjacent to this park looks to do the complete opposite. “Mini-Europe” is the answer to the travel who wants to see all the sites of Europe and only walk ½ a mile. Where else can you see the Eiffel Tower sitting opposite downtown Brussels. Plus, Mini-Europe is dog friendly. Even little Ally could appreciate peering over castles and looming over replica European towns. Plus as it was adjacent to the Atomium, so everywhere you looked you had this 350 ft atom looking down. It was *very*surreal experience to see something resembling an alien spacecraft overlooking an impressively realistic, but 20 foot, Belfry Tower of Bruges. Only in Brussels I guess. With 80 cities and 350 buildings, mini-Europe alone is worth the trip to Brussels.
City Tour, …check. Beer Museums, …check. 30 story Atom thingy, …check. Yep, that was about all we could fit into a two day trip to Belgium’s capitol. So does Belgium lack for its own culture? Of course, not. Is it heavily influenced by its neighbors, Probably.
But Brussels is a town all onto itself. A city where life is measured between waffles, comics and handcrafted beers. Sure it may not be your typical European style of culture, but in a continent of overly self-impressed castles and smug cathedrals, maybe some levity is just what we all need.
That’s all for this week. Next week I’ll be back in Bamberg, Germany for more smoke-beer action and an answer to the mystery of what exactly goes into the Fässla Beer-halls’ “Hungry Man Surprise Platter” (hint, your heart will tighten up just looking at it).