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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Waterloo and Ommegang

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Our Airbnb was at the eastern end of the municipality of Schaerbeek. Brussels was once a much smaller walled city surrounded by villages. Once the walls were destroyed in the nineteenth century the city became contiguous with the villages but most of them retained their own independent government. A few municipalities to the north ultimately merged with Brussels leading to the large northern projection of the city border. The narrow southern projection results from the annexation of the land on which the Avenue Louise was constructed as well as the Bois de la Cambre park. Schaerbeek has historically been a lower income area with less expensive costs of living and was an attractive destination for eastern European and especially Turkish immigrants during the twentieth century. Schaerbeek's distinguishing characteristic in Brussels is its strong Turkish influence. The town acquired some notoriety in 2016 when the safe house of the terrorists behind a suicide bombing in Brussels was located there, but otherwise Schaerbeek is not well known for being a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism.

Up to this point we hadn't spent any time in Schaerbeek aside from sleeping there but on Wednesday morning we went to the Chaussee d'Anvers weekly market at the western edge of the town. I was a little nervous after neither of our morning markets had materialized the previous morning but as soon as we reached our destination we saw the blocked intersection that marked the beginning of the shopping street. Although it was a sizeable market it turned out to not be very interesting since it was mostly produce resellers, clothing, and household items. There was no one at all selling prepared food so we had to roam around the area trying to find something to eat. All we could find was a bakery and bought some rolls for the kids to eat as we walked back to the car.

I now had to locate a good place for an early lunch which is not a trivial task in European cities. Few restaurants open for the midday meal before noon and at this point it was just after ten. I was able to locate a place using the "open now" filter on TripAdvisor and it fortuitously happened to be next to the Porte de Hal, the only surviving remnant of the city walls. Its current appearance as a Gothic castle is the result of a romanticized nineteenth century renovation of the original utilitarian tower. Although the gate seems somewhat incongruous in the midst of a modern city it is a beautiful edifice. I wondered how many of the locals basking in the park around the gate knew or cared that with respect to its status as a vestige of the medieval area it was an utter fraud.

I was excited about the next item on our itinerary, a Renaissance Village that was scheduled to begin at noon in Parc de Bruxelles. I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from this but it was one of the reasons I had extended our stay in Brussels from three night to four. The location was the main park in the center of the city, directly across from the Palace of Brussels. It was a nice park but there was no sign of a Renaissance Festival. We walked through every section hoping that we would find it in some out of the way corner but it was clear that there was nothing unusual going on in the park. Eventually we spotted a couple of guys working on some oversize carnival costumes and they informed us that the Renaissance Festival had been canceled. That was infuriating because the Brussels city website still had the event posted at that moment. They did tell us that the costumes were for a procession that would begin at the park that evening as part of the annual Ommegang festival.

So far this day hadn't been working out very well at all. The market had been a bust and now the main event of the day turned out to be canceled. We had no choice but to turn to our back ups, the first of which would be the museum and battlefield at Waterloo. I hadn't found this to be compelling enough to make room for it in our schedule but there was nothing else to fill up the afternoon. On the way back to the car we saw the carillon of the Mont des Arts, a clock with a set of bells and elaborate figurines that plays a melody every other hour. The figurines were designed to emerge from their niches at the strike of their designated hour but are now fixed in place, perhaps because the mechanism was prone to malfunction.

One of the historical truths that became apparent to me over this swing through Western Europe was how crucially important the period from 1789 to 1816 was in shaping the destiny of the nations that comprise the region. The French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon and the eventual defeat of Napoleon brought about the Congress of Vienna, which in turn settled the borders and sovereignty of several of the countries we were visiting. On one day in June of 1815, the future history of Europe balanced on the outcome of a single battle between Napoleon and the combined forces of England, Prussia, and the Netherlands. The quiet village of Waterloo, a half hour drive south from Brussels, hardly seems to have been the setting of one of the momentous events in modern European history. I made the mistake of following the Google Maps and ended up driving on the narrow paved walkway to the monument, intended only for pedestrians and horse-drawn buggies. Fortunately I realized my mistake and dropped off Mei Ling and the kids before reversing back to the road under the glares of pedestrians who I forced off the path. The long path to the Memorial traverses the battlefield which has long since reverted to its original function as a field of pea plants. Up ahead was the Lion's Mound, the artificial hill erected in 1826 to commemorate the decisive victory of the Seventh Coalition. I passed the buggy that ferries visitors to the Memorial coming towards me and heaved a sigh of relief that I hadn't encountered it during my misadventure with the car.

I caught up with the family at the museum and we decided we might as well pay for the entry, mainly to view the panoramic painting of the battlefield that is housed in its own rotunda. In the museum I soon realized how little I knew about the story of Napoleon's rise to power and his incredibly successful military campaigns. I could have happily spent a couple of hours building my knowledge but the kids were too young to really get it so I could only browse quickly through the displays. The panorama was impressive and I tried to use the moment to educate the kids about the brutality of war and the cheapness of the lives of common people in that era. I think the world is making progress in that department but it's hard to be sure.

The Lion's Mound was the highlight of the Memorial. The climb doesn't look that bad from a distance but we were exhausted once we arrived at the enormous iron lion on its stone pedestal at the summit. The battlefield was a typical idyllic tableau of agriculture in geometric shades of green and brown, betraying no sign of the tens of thousands of combatants who never left the fields alive.

Waterloo had proven to be worthy of a visit and we hadn't even had to spend the whole afternoon there. We had time to see another of my Brussels nonessentials on the opposite side of the city. The Atomium is a remnant of the 1958 World's Fair that was spared from destruction due to its local popularity and success in attracting visitors long after the fair ended. The structure is designed in the form of a unit cell of an iron crystal standing on a vertex. It's a breathtaking sculpture both in terms of its magnitude and its unique architecture. We were surprised that the entrance was only sixteen euros for adults, and half that for the kids, so we didn't hesitate to buy the tickets to tour the structure. An elevator brought us to the central sphere from which a series of escalators brought us through the other four spheres that could be visited. The exhibits were rather sparse and forgettable but the kids really enjoyed the futuristic design that resembled an enormous play structure.

A disappointing day had been rescued by the unexpected success of my backup activities. For dinner we had another night market, this time at Marché du Châtelain in Ixelles. We were looking forward to it after the good food and positive energy at Place Van Meenen on Monday night. The atmosphere at Châtelain was similar with perhaps a few more families and a little less emphasis on wine consumption. It seemed like the young people of Brussels believe in taking full advantage of the summer months with these weekday night markets. I felt some regret we wouldn't have the opportunity to see the city in its most energetic form on the weekend but there was no way with our schedule to spend weekends in both Brussels and Amsterdam.

Remembering the advice of the men at the park we drove back towards the center to look for the parade. All the roads leading towards the park were blocked but eventually I managed to figure out a way to park fairly close to Petit Sablon. There was quite a lot going on in front of the Our Lady of Victories church with a procession of floats and groups of marchers in matching costumes emanating from Place Royale. We followed the parade up to the square which seemed to be the optimal vantage point.

The Ommegang originated in the fourteenth century in celebration of a bizarre episode in which a local woman in a religious fervor stole a statue of the Virgin Mary from the cathedral in Antwerp and brought it back to Brussels. The modern festival celebrates a variety of religious and historical events and involves over fourteen hundred people. This was the first Ommegang in three years after the two prior iterations were canceled due to the COVID epidemic. Ultimately the procession would end at Grand Place where a show would take place for those who had paid admission. It was a relatively low key event but for us the best part was that we had scheduled our visit to coincide with the Ommegang by pure chance. It was one of those fortuitous events that makes travel so satisfyingly unpredictable.

In the morning we packed up and prepared to depart our subterranean garage for the last time. This ten car dungeon had been the stuff of nightmares with its enormous support pillars and tight packing of cars that turned each exit into a feat of topology and engineering. It was one thing to park in a space but identifying the complex sequence of maneuvers required to exit was entirely another. More than once I found myself hopelessly stuck and had to find my way back to the original parked position in order to attempt a new approach. Once we eventually broke free I had to pause on a steep ramp while Mei Ling manually activated the garage door. Every morning one individual blocked the exit with his illegally parked car while he had his morning coffee at a nearby cafe. Mei Ling had found him the first morning by pure luck and he betrayed no remorse whatsoever as he moved his car. On the following mornings we at least knew where to look. I was sad to be leaving Brussels but never having to deal with that garage again was a consolation.

Our final Brussels market was in the municipality of Molenbeek, to the west of the city center. Like Schaerbeek this is a historically working class area with relatively inexpensive housing that attracted waves of immigration in the mid twentieth century. The predominant ethnic minority in Molenbeek is Moroccan and the Thursday weekly market had as strong a Muslim atmosphere as the Wednesday market at Chaussee d'Anvers. The market extended from the Art Deco church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste all the way to the square in front of the Molenbeek town hall, with plenty of action spilling into the side streets.

This was definitely a much larger and more interesting market than Chaussee d'Anvers with a heavy emphasis on fresh produce and Arabic specialties like olives and dried fruits. We did quite well on our usual diet of cherries and bread but once again we were frustrated by the absence of any cooked food. It seemed that either the customers preferred not to eat at the Muslim morning markets or some municipal regulation forbade preparing food in the markets of Brussels.

Four nights in Brussels had turned out to be a good call. I had never given much thought to this city but it turned out to be one of our favorite European capitals with just the right combination of elegance and chaos. We still had a couple of stops to make in Belgium before beginning our exploration of the Netherlands.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:47 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family brussels atomium family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog molenbeek porte_du_hal

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