A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Central Brussels

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Belgium was the third culturally mixed country of our trip after Switzerland and Luxembourg. All of these countries owe their existence to the Congress of Vienna of 1815, one of the most significant events in the history of Europe. During the reign of Napoleon the regions known as the Low Countries were occupied by France but after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo new borders were established for a United Kingdom of the Netherlands that incorporated present day Netherlands and Belgium. This kingdom lasted for only fifteen years before the southern provinces, united by their Catholic religion and disdain for King William I, announced their secession. The new country of Belgium was a union of the French-speaking Walloons in the south and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north. We had already spent time in Liège in Walloonia and in Bruges and Ghent in Flanders. All that was left was the separate capital region of Brussels where Walloon and Flemish culture enjoyed equal influence.

We attempted to begin our exploration of Brussels with breakfast at a morning market. Unfortunately neither the markets at Parvis de St-Gilles or Place Flagey turned out to exist on Tuesday mornings. It seemed I hadn't done enough research to confirm the information I had gleaned online, perhaps because I was gathering information on so many cities that I had become careless. We had to eat croque monsieur sandwiches at a lackluster cafe near Place Flagey to fuel us for a walk around the Étangs d'Ixelles. These two elongated ponds are remnants of the wetlands that were drained in the nineteenth century as Brussels sought room for expansion. A small, lush park with a bike path and willow trees surrounds the ponds, which are livened by fountains and tiny islands.

Ixelles is another separate municipality, named for the forest of alder trees that once covered the area. It's a sizable and diverse area but the avenues around the ponds are especially well known for beautiful mansions in a variety of architectural styles.

Past the southern end of the ponds is the Abbaye de la Cambre, a former Cistercian Abbey whose buildings are now divided between various private owners. The grounds boast lush, well-manicured gardens that were originally created in the early eighteenth century. An ornate stone staircase leads to Avenue Louise, a prestigious boulevard that runs through the center of Ixelles. Ixelles objected strongly to the construction of the avenue to which Brussels responded by annexing the strip of land that Avenue Louise passes through. This resulted in the formation of an odd pseudopod of Brussels extending southeast from the center that divides Ixelles into two separate pieces.

The western section of Ixelles was also a classically beautiful urban neighborhood. I loved the way that adjoining townhouses could proudly display different colors, materials, and styles which was such a contrast to the typical uniformity of residential blocks in France or England. Of course both approaches can be used to beautiful effect but the diversity of residential architecture is one of the many pleasures of traveling. By this time we had found ourselves a mission to accomplish. We had arrived in Europe with a backpack full of books but they were on the verge of being exhausted and I did not want to concede the rest of the road trip to the iPads. Brussels would probably be our best bet for inexpensive English language bookstores and I had a promising candidate in Pêle-Mêle, a small chain with an outlet in Ixelles. We found the bookstore in a vibrant neighborhood of tree-lined streets filled with intriguing restaurants and curious little shops. There was a selection of English books on the upper level that was large enough to divide into categories and we came away with a much larger trove than I expected. I found some classic science fiction for Ian and a few literature classics I thought they might both enjoy as well as some light reading material.

We were relieved to find our car still at Place Flagey without evidence of having been tampered with or ticketed despite overstaying the allotted time. For lunch I suggested we return to Wolf since we were going to be exploring the center anyway and there weren't any objections. We'd all enjoyed our meal there on our first night in Brussels and there were still several of the mini restaurants we hadn't tried. We found it just as busy and energetic as the first time and the food was just as good.

The pedestrianized center of Brussels was packed with restaurants that were obviously geared to tourists with an emphasis on crepes and moules frites. On the main drag Rue de Bouchers virtually every diner at the outdoor tables had a heaping bucket of mussels in front of them. At the end of a narrow alley off Rue de Bouchers is Jeanneke Pis, a modern sculpture created in 1987 as a counterpart to the city's famous Mannikin Pis statue. Although the purported idea behind the statue of the peeing little girl is to advance gender equality, it was placed in a location designed to encourage pedestrians to enter the alley where the sponsor owns several restaurants. On another blind alley are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, two nineteenth century shopping arcades with large display windows divided by marble pillars. An arched glass-paned roof completes the elegant presentation of the galleries.

The main attraction of Brussels that ensures that all the moules frites restaurants in the center stay busy is Grand Place. The magnificent gilded Baroque buildings that surround this medieval square are mostly nineteenth century reconstructions of the original guild halls that represented the various associations of craftsmen and merchants in the city. The stone frame of the town hall and its Gothic tower are the only original medieval structures that survived bombardment during the Nine Years War of the late seventeenth century. At the time we visited the center of the square was cordoned off and filled with unassembled bleacher seating for the following night's Ommegang festival. The town hall had an interior courtyard which was free of unsightly debris and allowed a more pleasant perspective on the tower that loomed above us. We had seen so many amazing town squares in recent days, from Nancy to Trier to Bruges, that Grand Place hardly even stood out to us in comparison.

In my research on fun stuff for kids in Brussels I had uncovered something called the Underground Treasure Hunt at the Coudenberg. The Coudenberg is a museum located within the subterranean remnants of the original Palace of Brussels which was destroyed by fire in 1731. The existing Royal Palace was built adjacent to the ruins. The route here passed through the beautifully landscaped Jardin du Mont des Arts and Place Royal, a terrifying multi-lane rotary of speeding traffic surrounded by Neoclassical museums.

From my perspective the treasure hunt was a little disappointing, a self-guided scavenger hunt through a rather boring exhibit, but the kids were easily pleased by the challenge as well as their rewards of candy necklaces and paper crowns. Cleo posed with her crown in Place Royal and wore it occasionally for a couple of days afterwards.

A short walk southwest of Place Royale is the small neighborhood of Sablon which is notable for the beautiful Notre-Dame des Victoires church and the exquisite Petit Sablon park across from it. The central statue in the park depicts heroes of the Dutch Revolt against their Spanish rulers in the sixteenth century. The fence around the park, a landmark of the central city, contains forty-eight tall pedestals each topped by an bronze exemplar of a different historical profession. We found Sablon to be the most beautiful spot that we came across in Brussels.

On the opposite side of the church from Petit Sablon is a narrow triangular square called Grand Sablon. At the apex of the triangle was a busy rotary surrounded by interesting buildings including the flagship store of Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini. For some reason the facade of the Marcolini store had been festooned with an array of colorful oversized cardboard hats. On our way back to the car we passed the Manneken Pis, the inspiration for the Jeanneke Pis statue we had admired earlier in the day. This four hundred year old sculpture has engendered numerous knockoffs around the world. The inspiration for the statue has been long forgotten but there are numerous legends pertaining to the importance of a urinating toddler in the history of Brussels. Due to a longstanding tradition of stealing the sculpture the original has been placed in the Brussels City Museum and its place has been taken by a replica, which is still protected by a tall fence. Not far from the Manneken Pis an erotic bakery boasted a large chocolate replica of the obnoxious child standing among a display of penis-shaped eclairs.

While Belgium was not one of the major colonial powers, King Leopold II managed to carve out a sizable area of central Africa as his personal fiefdom in the late nineteenth century. This was a particularly brutal and repressive colony until independence was achieved in 1960 and the nation of Congo was created. In the years subsequent to independence many Congolese migrated to Brussels to work and study. The foundation of a hostel for Congolese students in the northern part of Ixelles eventually led to the development of a substantial African community. Many Congolese and other Africans opened restaurants and businesses in the area which soon adopted the name of Matonge after the entertainment district of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. Since Mei Ling and I love ethnic neighborhoods there was no way we could pass up the chance to see one of the few sub-Saharan African neighborhoods in Europe. We found a parking spot on the main drag of Matonge, Chaussée de Wavre, but the African restaurants we walked by weren't the most appealing. We struck gold on a pedestrian alley called Rue Longue Vie which was lined with colorful restaurants that displayed their specialties on outdoor banners. We passed by a busy barber shop and we figured it was a good opportunity to get me the haircut I desperately needed by that point. One of the barbers offered me a price that was too good to refuse, the equivalent of about ten bucks. I sat there for around fifteen minutes while he did away with most of my hair, laving me with a short fringe that was combed back to reveal about four inches of forehead. It didn't faze me much as I'm not too fussy about my appearance and I wanted a haircut that would last until I got home. I didn't have exact change and with some trepidation I handed the barber a larger bill and told him how much change I wanted. My concern proved to be warranted as my barber entered into an animated conversation with an individual at the back who might have been a manager or an owner. After a couple of minutes of back and forth, which appeared to me to be an act, my barber came back over and presented the ridiculous story that his manager wasn't allowing him to accept such a low payment for the haircut. I knew I was being scammed but the bill I had given wasn't large enough to make a big stink about. Of course I wasn't going to add any tip now so I was only out an extra seven euros. The experience left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth since I should have known better than to be in a position to need change. I quickly put it behind me and we sat down across the street at what seemed to be the most appealing restaurant with the most exotic dishes. African food can be a bit of a toss up with the unfamiliar textures and flavors but we enjoyed most of the dishes that we were served. We still haven't been to sub-Saharan Africa and it was a reminder that we need to fill that significant gap in our travel catalogue.

On the way back to the car we looked down a side street and saw a brightly-lit intersection where the sidewalks were filled with people eating at outdoor tables. Even though we had just eaten it was an irresistible scene and we needed to be part of that beautiful urban atmosphere. We found an open table and ordered a bucket of mussels and a plate of escargots, somehow finding enough room in our stomachs to consume them with a couple of glasses of wine. We were just a block from the African neighborhood but it seemed we had traveled between continents in a few steps. Brussels and especially Ixelles had given us one of our most satisfying days of the journey thus far. It had been a great way to cross the halfway point of our itinerary.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:35 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family manneken_pis family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog ixelles matonge grand_place

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