Hello Brussels, the quiet capital of Belgium and sensible home to the main institutions of the European Union as well as endless bars, restaurants and chocolate shops. But do its emblems of the Manneken Pis and Atomium reveal something more about the city’s hidden character?
It is easy to think that Brussels is a boring city of business but, as I stand looking at the Manneken Pis, I wonder if that is not unfair. This statue of a boy passing water is a strange emblem for a city with such a reputation. At just 61 centimeters tall, it is also surprisingly small for such a major icon and its oddity extends to the fact it is dressed in a different costume every week.
“I do not know what people think about Brussels,” says graphic novelist Judith Vanistendael when I ask her what makes Brussels special. “I guess they think it is dirty (true), that the food is great (also true) and that there is an Atomium (certainly true). But the good thing is that anyone can become a citizen. It is up to you to decide. You do not have to be born here to be part of this city. There is a real freedom for all who live here. The city will not claim you and there is a rich mix of people.”
I soon notice that so many inhabitants I meet, at least one in four, are foreigners. After all, as well as being the capital of Belgium, Brussels is home to major institutions such as the European Union, as well as being the political headquarters of NATO.
The capital city of Europe and at the same time a little village
“Brussels is the capital city of Europe and at the same time a little village of only a million people,” says chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud. “We are focused on the international but still know how to enjoy a very relaxing and comfortable day-to-day life. The city is small and easy-going, people will stop to help you in the street, and you can get around most of the city on foot.”
“Brussels makes me think of New York, but on a smaller and more human scale,” says Judith, who has worked in Berlin and Seville. “There are loads of things going on, lots of nice bars and so on but, at the same time, people are less stressed than in bigger cities like London and Paris. I like the fact that you can live in a big space, even with a garden, in the city center, as it is less expensive than other capitals, and you never know which language you will be talking.”
I admire her self-control in not mentioning chocolate, perhaps the city’s most famous product alongside beer, the national drink. The Délirium Café in Brussels holds a Guinness World Record for the 3,000 different beers from 60 countries it stocks. The city also gave its name to the Brussels sprout, first grown nearby in the first half of the 19th century, but the food it is best known for is the “French” fry. Rather than France, fries were first created in Belgium and form part of the national dish of moules- frites: steamed mussels with tomato sauce, onion and white wine, with the fries accompanied by mayonnaise sauce. However, the 220,000 tonnes of chocolate produced in Belgium each year make for a much stronger passion – or is that just me?
Notorious for its drinking dens and crime
Laurent is the grandson of a local baker and has studied in Shanghai but came back home to open one of the city’s leading chocolate shops. He offers me some good advice: “Eat it fresh, from a small chocolatier such as the ones around Place du Grand Sablon or, of course, just stop by my place opposite Bozar (the Palais des Beaux-Arts).” The Place du Grand Sablon takes its name from its original 13th century use as an open space to dry wool. By the 1960s, it was notorious for its drinking dens and crime but is unrecognizable today as a very upmarket focus for shops run by major chocolate brands.
I sit at the terrace table of one under an elegant awning in striking brown and fuchsia and watch the comings and goings as I enjoy a chocolate with orange peel. It strikes me that a good proportion of the people of Brussels seem to spend their day, dressed in rich jewelry and fur coats, wandering between tearooms, chocolatiers and luxury boutiques.
With the wonderful flavor of the chocolate still on my lips, I walk a short distance up the street to Pierre Marcolini’s store. This Belgian chocolatier has become one of the best known in the world, thanks to his tireless search for new flavors: sour, bitter, sweet and utterly delicious. He travels every year to remote places in search of the best cocoa beans. Judging by the prices, he can afford to travel first class, but the store is not lacking customers.
Anyone can tell the difference between bad and good
Passing over flavors such as blackcurrant, pepper and sandalwood, I leave with a bar of chocolate that mixes cocoa from Ecuador, Ghana and Mexico. Tasting it later, I am left with the feeling that chocolate is like wine: anyone can tell the difference between bad and good, but it takes an expert to distinguish the outstanding from the excellent.
“Just go to a supermarket and buy Cote d'Or,” says Judith. “You don't have to go to a special chocolatier. Or try the tiny Carrefour in the Central Station, where you can buy Dolphin Chocolate – which is incredible.” It seems that everyone in Brussels has an opinion on chocolate, just as people in New York are passionate about the best coffee shop, Londoners have a list of pubs, or citizens of Paris will cross the city for their favorite croissant.
Beer, however, must run a close second. After testing it in various places, I settle on Halles Saint-Géry as my own preference. Saint-Géry was a Gothic church built in the late Middle Ages but demolished during the French Revolution of 1798 to leave a public square and market. In 1881, a market hall was built that has now been transformed into a center and exhibition hall dedicated to the heritage and environment of the city of Brussels. The bar inside offers shelter from inclement weather, while the terraces are the perfect place to enjoy a sunny day.
I sit outside to sample some of the recommendations that the friendly staff are happy to make. Some of the beers are mild, such as Blanche or the famous Kriek, made with sour cherries, and Framboise, made with raspberry. For those with a stronger or more adventurous palate, brands such as Orval, Rochefort or Chimay pack more of a kick. I am very impressed by the Abbey beers, especially the Grimbergen Double. Although no longer made by monks, the beers are based on their original recipe.
A nickname for the “mongrel” citizens of Brussels
What goes in must come out and maybe it is the high consumption of beer that fuels the city’s seeming obsession with urine. Besides the famous Manneken Pis, there are two other statues devoted to the subject. The first is a bronze dog called Zinneke, with his hind leg raised in that characteristic canine pose. The sculpture pays tribute to the stray dogs that once roamed around the little Zenne River and the name “Zinneke” has been adopted as a nickname for the “mongrel” citizens of Brussels.
The name sums up a spirit of being proud of an assorted mix of cultures and roots in a time when politicians promote differences and nationalism keeps rearing its head. “Self- mockery and simplicity are characteristics of the Belgian personality and make us different,” says Pierre Massart, who works for the city’s tourism office. “Brussels is certainly one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth and every nationality can feel at home here. This lack of nationalism enables everybody to feel part of it.”
The cultural diversity of the city is celebrated every two years in the Zinneke Parade, which is proud of being “100 percent human”, banning motorized vehicles or amplified music. “The Zinneke is run by Zinnodes, a group of around 100 people headed by an artist who works on the central theme,” says Jens Stevens, a theatrical set builder who has now taken part in three of them. “Anyone is welcome to join and the months of working together with people from all walks of life and cultures, learning skills from painting to Oriental dance, is as much the point as the actual parade.”
The third statue on the urinary theme is Jeanneke Pis, a little sister to Manneken Pis, who squats off busy Rue des Bouchers in the historic center. “She was put there as a tourist trap,” says a local woman. “She is on the other side of the Grand Place from the Manneken Pis so restaurants and bars on this side would not feel neglected. She is in very poor taste.”
Where singer Jacques Brel was discovered in the 1950s
The alley she is in is called Impasse de la Fidélité (Fidelity Alley) – so Jeanneke has become a symbol for lovers, who throw coins into the small fountain between her feet. Jeanneke has been in place since 1987 but remains relatively unknown, although I note a set of vandal-proof bars that may prove she needs protection from those wishing to make her their own, or remove her. Nearby is the Délirium Café, of 3,000 beers fame.
Rue des Bouchers was once lined with butchers, hence its name, and still shows their wealth in the mansions dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. This pedestrianized street is now filled with restaurants, where diners are offered over-priced seafood or moules-frites from laminated menus in several languages. During the Belle Époque, it was a place of small music venues, including the jazz club, La Rose Noire, where singer Jacques Brel was discovered in the 1950s. This haunt of the world’s most famous Belgian, after the fictional Hercule Poirot and painter Rene Magritte, is now another restaurant, Les Armes de Bruxelles.
To that list of famous Belgians, we might add Tintin, another fictional character but one whose adventures any traveler must admire. Cartoonist Georges Remi wrote under the pen name Hergé and gave his creation adventures everywhere from the Congo and Nepal to fictional Latin American dictatorships and even the moon. Not far from the Jardine Botanique is the Belgian Comic Strip Center, known as CBBD, sprawling over three floors of a magnificent art nouveau building designed by Victor Horta between 1903 and 1906.
I make a pilgrimage to this museum for comic lovers, where Tintin is only one of the stars. I enjoy seeing the boy hero’s style change from the black and white in the very first drawings from 1929 to color and the introduction of such familiar names from my childhood bedtime reading as Captain Haddock, Thomson and Thompson, and Professor Calculus. The Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Spirou and many other characters spring to life in the museum’s displays of drawing boards, photographs, life- size prints, cartoons, movies, sketches, models, books and 6,000 original plates.
A dazzling fantasy dreamed up by a poet
Back outside, it is a mild shock to discover the real world is still going on. On the Grand Place, I watch groups of tourists from various nations follow flags and raised umbrellas to explore the glorious architecture of this Unesco World Heritage Site. The town hall, the Hôtel de Ville, dates to 1405 and I enjoy a guided tour to admire the rich paintings, sculptures and tapestries that adorn the magnificent interior.
This Gothic masterpiece has an off-center belfry and legend has it that its architect, Jan van Ruysbroeck, threw himself off the top when he noticed the lack of symmetry. It is a good story but, as my guide points out, hardly true as the imbalance actually came from a need to preserve a side street when a second wing was added in 1449.
The Grand Place is a meeting point lined with chocolate shops, terraces, restaurants and bars. I rest my tired feet on one of the terraces to further my research into cold Belgian beer. Looking at the prices on the menu, I realize a beer is all I can afford. As I sip it slowly, I read the words of Victor Hugo – who looked at the same view in 1837: “The Town Hall of Brussels is a jewel, a dazzling fantasy dreamed up by a poet, and realized by an architect. And the square around it is a miracle.”
This is also the place to find the original Manneken Pis, as the one most people see is a copy. The original rests in the former Maison du Roi or King’s House, now the city’s museum, along with 800 of its costumes from all cultures and nations, ranging from football strips and a cosmonaut, to a bullfighter and even a glittery Elvis outfit. The statue dates to at least 1452, so the costumes are a relatively new addition – with the first being presented in 1698 by the Elector of Beieren.
These crossbowmen still train every week in their guildhall
My favorite is the medieval crossbowmen’s uniform, a replica of those worn by the Guild of the Grand Serment Royal et de Saint-Georges. Founded in 1381, these crossbowmen still train every week in their guildhall near Place Royale, where they welcome visitors who wish to experience firing this powerful weapon. They are also a highlight of the Ommegang, the colorful medieval pageant that fills the Grand Place with flag throwers and mounted knights every July.
The other great symbol of Brussels could hardly be more of a contrast to Manneken Pis. The shining, steel-clad Atomium was built as a temporary exhibit for the World Fair of 1958 and never removed. It stands 102 meters high and represents an elementary iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times. What is perhaps more important is the sentiment of Expo ’58 that it encapsulated: an optimism about the benefits of nuclear power and faith that progress would shape a better life for humanity. Its elevator whisks me to the top at a speed of five meters per second and I take in the panoramic views of the city.
Everything below looks tiny – a sensation I repeat in the nearby Mini-Europe, which recreates in miniature not only the Atomium and the rest of the main sights of Brussels but also European icons such as the Eiffel Tower, Westminster and a crumbling Berlin Wall. Not for the first time, I feel that I am missing a quiet joke enjoyed by the Belgians at the expense of visitors.
I am reminded of the story that, every day, Magritte would have breakfast and kiss his wife goodbye before putting on his hat and coat, and leaving for work. He would walk around the block, come home, hang up his coat and start his day’s work in his studio. From Manneken Pis and the Atomium to the Zinneke Parade, there is often a hint of the surreal in Brussels, hidden behind its appearance of being very ordinary and dull.