Belgium is a small country sandwiched between France on the southern side and the Netherlands on the northern side, with the North Sea on the western side and Luxembourg and Germany forming its eastern border. Unlike France, the Netherlands and Germany – Belgium has two official main languages – Flemish and French and both languages are spoken by their respective language group and used in naming cities and towns, in street names, menus and signage.
Both the Flemish language (like the Dutch language) and French language speakers are passionate about their own language as it forms a big part of their identity. You will find that Flemish speakers won’t necessarily understand or speak French and vice versa, but both will more than likely speak English or German as their second language.
The Capital, Brussels for example in French is referred to as Brussels, (pronounced Bru- Sells), while the Flemish will call and spell Brussels as ‘Bruxelles’. At one time it was common to find the Flemish and French removing the town names of each other – much to the confusion of travellers searching for the French or Flemish signage name and not being able to find it. An example of this would be the Flemish of ‘Ieper’ which in French is called ‘Ypres’.
Then there is a third language too – Walloon, spoken in the Wallonia French part of Belgium – which is a bit like French and German but almost totally different too in the way it is written and also sounds. As you get closer to the German border, you will also hear more German being spoken too.
As much as having three languages in one small country may in some ways be confusing, it also adds immeasurably to the character and charm of Belgium. Brussels for example is largely French speaking, but the city is located in a largely Flemish region. You can also then an overlay to this, given that Brussels is an international city, home to the EU Bureaucracy and immigrants too. This means that around 25% of the population are not born in Belgium and speak a multitude of different languages.
The main languages of the European Parliament are French, English and German, but there are 23 Official languages and the translation department of Parliament is the biggest department within the Bureaucracy.
In France, ‘wine’ is the national drink, whereas in Belgium it is ‘beer’ and Belgians are just as passionate about their beers as the French are about their wines. They are also just as passionate about food and particularly chocolate, with some of the best Chocolatier, waffle and pastry shops anywhere in the world. These four reasons – beer, pastries, waffles and chocolate are reasons enough to spend time in Belgium and if you like Mussels to eat, Belgium is the place to find them.
WELCOME TO BELGIUM - the birth place of ‘Tin Tin’ -
All cities and countries in the world have what I call a ‘Public persona’, that aura that radiates the feeling that you get from a city when you visit. It is not something necessarily tangible, but it does come from the way people go about their daily lives in the city and from the city that surrounds them. For example Brussels to me gives out this feeling of ‘sophistication’ that is characterised in the fashionable way that people dress and in the small streets and stylish way that shops display their goods for sale. The epicentre of this ‘public persona’ in Brussels is the Grand Place, which is one of the most beautiful squares in the world radiating its beauty to all that visit the square and spend time here.
Antwerp and Bruges – two other great cities in Belgium that you should visit, have very different ‘Public Personas’, both quite different to Brussels and each other, but equally involving.
Contrast this however with the March 25th, 2016 Terrorist attacks that occurred at the Brussels Airport and on the Metro that day when 32 people died and around 300 others were severely injured. Tragic, sad, awful, stupid, insane – however you describe it these ‘terrorist attacks’ have happened in many cities around the world, and nowhere is entirely safe or without risk – as people in London, New York, Boston, Paris, Marseilles, Quebec City, Istanbul and other cities well know.
Brussels is the capital of Belgium and also of the EEC – with the European Parliament here as well as the Belgium Parliament buildings and the Royal Palace (Palais Royal) located here. Perhaps this makes Brussels a target for extremists, but it is hard to fathom exactly what these extremists are seeking to achieve. What is certain is that they have achieved nothing to date other than hate, fear and loathing.
There is no doubt that safety and security are top of mind concerns particularly when you travel, and the sight of Police and armed security adds to the concern, but Belgium is no more risky than any other place in Europe. Me personally – I love Belgium and am happy to come back here anytime.
WHAT TO SEE IN BRUSSELS -
One of my greatest laments is that today’s architects design houses and other buildings mostly use only 90˚and 180˚ angles in their constructions – squares and rectangles, and yet there are 358˚ other angles that they could use! Their rationale is that the square and rectangle are the most time efficient and cost effective way of building and maximising the utilisation of the land, internal space and its value. There is validity to this line of thought, but the results are hardly inspiring to see. Contrast the design of today with the master designers of centuries ago.
Foremost on your list to see in Belgium is the La Grand Place (De Grote Markt) in the centre of Brussels. Here you will see buildings constructed between the 14th and 17th century – with the Town Hall, Maison de Roi (House of the King), Breadhouse- Museum of the City and some 40 Guild Halls, Guilds being the artisan craft associations that once formed the associations of working trades.
In Brussels there were originally nine Guilds pre 1795 – what they called ‘Nations’ and given a Saint’s name, such as the ‘Nation of Our Lady’ representing Butchers , fishmongers and even Goldsmiths or ‘Nation of St Nicholas’ which represented such disparate trades as Slaters, Gunsmiths, stonemasons, pedlars, swordsmiths and gilders.
Here in the Grand Place when you look up you will see a myriad of shapes in towers, pinnacles, windows, pediments, balustrades, arches and other decorative features, even golden gild work touches on some of the Guild buildings – such as the Maison des Brasseurs with the date 1698. Day and at night the buildings surrounding the Grand Place come to life giving out this energy to the people in the square. It is a truly beautiful square and always something happening and you have to marvel at both the skills of the architect designers and also the artisan craftsmen who created these building masterpieces. When these buildings were constructed, they were very religious times too, so as much as the artisans created their works for those who look up to it, they also designed them too for God and the Heavens to look down upon their work too and admire it, giving those who worked on these buildings a a better chance of entering the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.
You will also see Dutch/Flemish Gable roof lines in the Grand Place too – where the roof façade at the top of the building is a series of left and right curves that lead to a pediment on top. This roofline style is almost symbolic of Dutch and Flemish design.
The other two squares to see are the Place des Martyrs named after the Martyrs in the Belgium Independence Revolution in 1830, with 400 of the Martyrs buried under the cobblestone square and the Place Royale – where you find the Palais Royal (Royal Palace) with some amazing rooms inside to see including the Throne Room and Congo Room – from the time when the Congo in Africa was a Belgium Colony. On the square there is the statue of Godfrey De Bouillon, the leader of the First Crusade in 1096, as well as a number of Museums here to see. There is the René Magritte Surrealist Museum, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belvue Museum and Church of Saint-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg that was built in 1787. The National Botanic Gardens of Belgium with its massive Glasshouse is located at 61 Avenue du Parc Royal.
Another square that is also worth seeing is Place de Grand Sablon off Rue de la Règence, where there is the Church, Notre Dame de Sablon and there are lots of shops here to see and on Sundays market stalls. Place de Petit Sablon is near here too with lots of small statues to see and read the inscriptions about them.
Belgium and Brussels have some great architecture and if you like architecture, it is a good place to travel and walk some of the streets in the centre of Brussels and other Belgium cities.
On the grand scale there is the Parc de Cinquantenaire (50Th Anniversary Park (Jubelpark) which a park with a what they call “arcades” (Buildings) on each side creating an entranceway to the Triumphal Archway (a bit like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris). In the arcades you will find the huge Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History with aircraft, tanks and much more as well as the Vintage Car Museum and the Musée Royaux d’Art et D’Histoire, while not far away too is the Maison Cauchie. You could easily spend a whole day here.
One of Belgium’s famous architectural styles is what is called “Art Nouveau”, with its foremost proponent of this being the Architect, Victor Horta (1861-1947) who built number of houses, hotels and other buildings here in Brussels in the 1890’s. The best place to see his work is his own house, now the Victor Horta Atelier Museum located on 25 Rue Américaine. His work is characterized by his use of light, shape, glass, wood panelling, cast iron filigree, ornamentation and flourishes with rounded shapes and the integration between art and architecture. Also take a look at La Maison Cauchie – the Art Nouveau building located at 5 Rue des Francs (near the Cinquantenaire Park) with a gallery inside.
The easiest way to see around Brussels is by using the Hop on-Hop off buses and buying a Brussels Card that gives you access to discounts and entrance to some of the 32 Museums in Brussels.
As you would expect there are many churches in Brussels, two of the more famous being the Gothic St Michael and St Gudul Cathedral at 1000 Parvis Sainte-Gudule, 1000 Brussels and the Art Deco Basilique Nationale du Sacré Coeur à Koekelberg which also has a Museum of Modern Religious Art and the Museum of the Cellite Black Sisters. It is located at 6 Rue Antoine Dansaert. It is only open at certain times, so check to see when.
Brussels has many museums and as well as the ones listed above, there are museums dedicated to Beer and Brewing, to Chocolate, Congo- Africa, Natural Science, Musical Instruments, Banking, Cars, Toys, Fine Arts, Costume and Design and even a Comic Centre Museum, where the character of Tin Tin created by Hergé (1907-1983) is the central attraction. This Comic Centre Museum is in an art deco building designed by Victor Horta. It is located at 20 Rue des Sables.
While Tin Tin is famous, there is also another famous small character in Brussels too – ‘Manneken Pis’ (the pissing boy). This small bronze statue, sometimes dressed for special occasions has been here since 1619 and millions of people have come to see him. The Manneken Pis is located at the corner of Rue de l’Ètuve and Rue du Chène.
As much as the Manneken is famous, there are many other places to see in Brussels too – including the immense European Parliament buildings with the Hemicycle (semi-circular forum) where the European Parliamentarians meet – see www.europarl.europa.eu and also the Atomium – a giant silver model of an atom. The Atomium was built in 1956 for the 1958 Expo that was held in Brussels, showing the best of Europe thinking and technology at the time. You can go up into the 5 spheres that are spread out over 8 levels and see changing exhibitions and even get a coffee here too. Not far away is a Mini Europe Village – see www.minieurope.com where you can walk through a garden with models of famous European landmarks.
As you would expect there is no shortage of places to shop, or find a bar, music or restaurants in Brussels too and sometimes the best places are just off the main places that you head to see. There is Galleries St Hubert – a covered arcade, first built in 1847 with lots of tables where you can sit and people watch, have a coffee and wander through some of the shops here. The most popular street is Rue Neuve – with lots of people and fashion boutiques. Other streets to look for are Chausée d’Ixelles, Rue Antoine Dansaert, Nouveau Marché aux Grains, Avenue Louise, but there are many others too.
Brussels has an excellent airport, Train, Bus, Metro, taxi and Tram services. There are also places where there are bike rentals and bike paths where you can ride and you could also take a Boat trip on the Canals here too – See www.brusselsbywater.be or www.rivertours.be to find out more.
Summer or winter, Brussels has a lot to see and do, and with good coffee, croissants, chocolates and beer, you will find lots of places to just sit and soak up the atmosphere of Brussels.