Part of a series written for easyJet holidays….
Three days into my Belgian adventures and I’ve managed to explore the cities of Leuven, Bruges and Antwerp. Now it’s time for something completely different, the beautiful French-speaking capital – Brussels. After stopping in Leuven for a quick souvenir shop that involved an incident that could belong on a home video clip show, (imagine a bag of brand new, gift-wrapped Belgian glasses being carried out of a shop that has a slippery front door slope. The results are a pretty loud crash!) we made our way to the train station for the final trip of the weekend.
As a bilingual city, by law every sign, menu and magazine in Brussels has to be translated in both Dutch and French. The city, however, feels prominently French, with a fashionable Parisian style and a cheese and wine diet. Compared to a city like Bruges, with its heavy influences from the Netherlands, Brussels has an atmosphere that makes you feel like you have just taken a step too far out of France.
There’s plenty to see in Brussels and the first port of call, again, is the Grand Place and Town Hall. Recently voted the most beautiful square in Europe, the Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is full of beautiful buildings and unusual market stalls. Once every two years in August, the Grand Place is covered with a ‘flower carpet’. Every inch of the square is decorated with brightly coloured begonias creating interesting patterns. After giving the golden statue of Everard’t Serclaes a quick rub for good luck it’s time to take a look at one of the most famous attractions in Brussels – the Manneken Pis, “little man pee”. To be honest I was a little disappointed with the size…of the whole statue that is! I was expecting a large monument with a big fuss but you could walk right past it if you didn’t know it was there. The Manneken Pis is a statuette of a little boy urinating into a fountain. There are plenty of sensible stories about why he became famous but my favourite is the most obscure. Apparently in the 14th century foreigners, who attempted to burn down the city with explosives, attacked Brussels. Little boy Juiliaanske saw the whole thing take place and ran to the rescue, urinating on the fuse before it reached the bombs. The Friends of Manneken Pis association dresses the statue up for special occasions – unfortunately I had just missed him in an astronaut costume! The scale of the Palace of Justice was far more impressive. From the outside the dominant pillars definitely give it the right atmosphere for a law court. You can go inside into the first room, providing you don’t disturb anyone meeting with their lawyer, and looking up is enough to make you feel dizzy. The room is like a tardis, you would never believe its size from the street. It’s more than worth the walk up the hill.
Across the city the Royal Palace gives our Queen Lizzy a run for her money. The grand building, as it is today, has been used by the monarchy of Belgium for hundreds of years but the grounds date back as far as the Middle Ages. There are no guards in funny hats here but the palace feels a bit like a home from home. The main façade is reminiscent of our own Royal Palace, although in Brussels you can get much closer to the gates – you’d get a great view for any Royal Weddings. Across from the palace are the Royal Palace Gardens or Brussels Park. The tree lined paths lead to beautiful fountains and in the summer, free parties are held every weekend in the centre of the park. If you do decide to head out to this end of town, pick up a sandwich along the way. Getting lunch in the centre of Brussels can be expensive so have a picnic in the park instead.
We had to skip some of the main attractions of Brussels. I didn’t get to see The Atomium or Mini-Europe, although we did accidently stumble upon Rail City – not quite as exciting as it sounds. After four days of walking, sight-seeing, eating Flemish Stew (one of my new favourites) and drinking Belgian beers it was time to head home.
I arrived in Belgium with no real expectations; I had never been to the country before and hadn’t really done my research. The mix of influences on the country amazed me. Both The Netherlands and France have added the best of their traits to Belgium and rather than leaving it confused, it feels well balanced. The cities that I visited (Leuven, Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels) all follow a fairly similar structure. The architecture looks familiar and each is centered with a Grand Place and Town Hall. While some of the city centres feel a bit samey, every place has its quirks and unique features that define it from any others. I was lucky to visit the country with someone that knew it so well, particularly someone who has a far better grasp on the languages than me. I’d love to go back to Belgium and do some exploring past the big cities and see what else the country has to offer. But for now I look forward to my next adventure, wherever it may be, and hope that I can report back to easyJet Holidays with some stories to tell.