For many years, I was one of the best students in my class. I knew everything about everything, I had the best answers to my teachers’ questions, I felt like the “star of the show”. Well, there were two exceptions: history and geography. I couldn’t see how knowing facts from the past would improve my present life, so I never bothered to study that too seriously. Geography also seemed pretty useless, since there were trains, planes and buses to get you from your current location to a desired destination. This made me visit Brussels but miss the opportunity to stop by Paris on my way from Bucharest, Romania, to Belgium.
How My Poor Geography Made Me Miss an Opportunity To Visit Paris
Fast forward twenty years. Here I am, standing in the Bucharest airport, with my bag in one hand and the plane ticket in the other, ready to check in for Brussels (or Bruxelles, as it is known by French speaking people). Funny though, after staring a lot at the take-off board, I had to admit that my flight didn’t exist! No kidding! I really had to be in Brussels that evening. I was traveling for business and didn’t want to miss the next day’s meeting. I went to the Tarom representative office in the airport, to tell them there was something wrong with the departures board. A very nice lady offered to help. She spotted the issue from a glance: the departures board was fine, but my flight was due the next day and that was the date on my ticket! My booking agent got my flight date wrong.
The Tarom representative offered to put me on a flight to Paris, if I wanted. If I only knew Paris was only two hours distance from Brussels by train! I didn’t, so I thought it was better to be stuck in Bucharest, where I was at home, rather than trying to convince the airport staff in Paris to help me get to Brussels. I didn’t even know that France and Belgium are neighbors.
To make a long story short, I called the travel agent and they were able to switch my ticket for another flight later that evening, with another airline. This is how, instead of visiting both cities, I ended up spending all the time in Brussels. As my business meetings there ended on Friday morning and my flight back to Bucharest was on Sunday afternoon, I had a weekend to zoom around and see the city.
Visiting Brussels: A Quick Tour in the City Center
Like most European cities, Brussels has those hop-on hop-off buses which take tourists to the main objectives. Don’t take the bus if you get there, because there’s a better way to visit Brussels, which is by walking. Almost everything in the central area is within walking distance and the little streets are absolutely charming, it’s a pleasure to walk. Nonetheless, you may want to avoid the 7 – 7:30 pm interval, because that’s when rubbish is collected and most sidewalks will be full of black plastic bags waiting to be picked up.
Also, keep in mind that I’ve been here on a business trip, so my leisure and visiting time was limited. If you want an exhaustive list of things to do and see in this beautiful city, take a look at this Brussels travel blog, as it is way more detailed than mine. Furthermore, if you are backpacking Europe, you should consider Brussels as a great transition place from Holland to France, and then to Spain and Portugal.
A Statue So Small, That It Often Gets Stolen (You Can’t Visit Brussels and Not See this Famous Little Boy)
When I first arrived in Brussels, I had no idea what were the most important things to see for a tourist. My more knowledgeable colleagues said we should go find Manneken Pis, a famous statue, a symbol of Brussels, which is nothing more than a naked little bronze boy taking a piss above a stone fountain. There are many legends about this little boy. I like the one which says the boy urinated on the fuse of an explosive load, thus saving the city from a siege. If you want to read more legends, click here.
Poor Manneken Pis! This winter was so cold, that the little boy stopped peeing (reported by Reuters in a hilarious way).
Anyway, the statue which is now on site is only a replica, the original being kept in a museum (I forgot which one, but I know that from the Wikipedia page I’ve linked to earlier).
Everard ‘t Serclaes, the Warrior Who Brings You Luck and Makes Your Wishes Come True
This statue is located on a little street nearby the Grand Place. I noticed it because many old ladies who passed by that street touched the statue with their hand. I thought it must be Virgin Mary, but when I came closer, it was obviously the statue of a man. I touched it, but I didn’t make a wish, so for me it was only the “luck” part of the story that applied. That’s a very good reason to visit Brussels again, isn’t it?
Et Nous Voila sur La Grand-Place. Sur le Kiosk on Joue Mozart. Mais Dites-moi…
The above headline says “And here we are on the Grand-Place. There’s Mozart music playing at the booth. But tell me…”. It’s a line from Les Bonbons (The Candies), a song by Jacques Brel which you can listen to here:
I could not find English subtitles, but I can tell you the song is about a guy who’s going to meet a girl in the Grand Place and he brought her candies. When he gets there, she’s with another boy, Leon, so our hero takes his candies to Germaine, another girl who he has just claimed before not to like that much.
La Grand-Place is awesome. It is a big, open space surrounded by very old buildings more or less restored. It is on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Its name translates as “The Big Market”. That’s because it was really a market in the old city of Brussels. It’s a shame it had to be bombarded by French troops. The bombardment of Brussels came as a response to Dutch and English armies destroying the coastal towns of France. History is stupid. No wonder I never liked it. Humans are stupid. Anyway, go to the Grand-Place and allow yourself at least one hour to stare at the buildings and take photos. In the middle of the square there are artists selling their drawings. There’s classic music playing from the Cite de la Ville (City Hall), there are benches where you can sit for free and restaurants where you can enjoy a coffee or a meal (I didn’t try any, so I can’t tell anything about the prices). In the evening, the buildings are lit in different colors. It’s like light therapy, colors change in the rhythm of the music. Your night photos will be much better than mine if you use a tripod (which I didn’t).
Aerial Views Through the Not So Clean Windows of Atomium Brussels
For 11 Euros, you can visit the Atomium and Mini Europe theme park. From the city center you can either get there by bus or by Metro. I chose the Metro and I was happy about that. It’s clean and fast and it gets you very close to the park.
I went into the Atomium for admiring Bruxelles from above. It was cool, but it would have been better if the windows were cleaner.
Although I went there with the misconception in mind that such theme parks are for children, I enjoyed Mini Europe. It was cool to see all those miniature buildings from all over Europe. I haven’t seen many of them in real life yet, so it was quite fun to walk through them.
There would be other things to do and see in Brussels, there are several museums which sound interesting, some parks which I would have liked to visit, some more buckets of mussels waiting for me. If you wish to visit Belgium, you can get a so-called B-excursion from the Belgian national railways company. You can find more details on their website, however some parts of it are only available in French or Dutch.
The most memorable things for me were the little streets with flowers and old buildings and the food. Belgium is famous for its beer, which is really good, you have to taste it. Sea food is also great. There are special bars where you can have “moules et frites”, namely mussels and fries. The mussels come in a big bucket, like this. They go very well with beer.
To end in a nostalgic note, I found this film which follows the route of the Brussels Tourist Tramway, illustrated with Jacques Brel’s song, Bruxelles:
Have you ever been to Brussels or to other places in Belgium? Do you have any tips to share with us?