After watching the Hollywood blockbuster film “Monuments Men,” I was inspired to visit Belgium. Okay, I will admit it mainly to see the Madonna of Bruges’ statue, which Donald Jeffries (played by Hugh Bonneville) died while trying to protect. I had to see what made this statue so special when I did, it did not disappoint – but more on that next week.
When the movie was released in February 2014, I started planning my trip to Belgium shortly after watching it. In fact, I think I started planning while I was on my way home from the theatre. I knew nothing of Belgium when I started planning, what to see, where to stay, entry/exit requirements etc. I just knew I wanted to visit Belgium within the year. I won’t bore you with the details of researching hotels and hostels and flight details, but let’s say I learned a lot about Belgium while researching.
I departed Toronto Pearson International Airport on August 4, 2015, with British Airways arriving at London Heathrow on August 5. I had a connecting flight 3 hours later where I would depart London Heathrow on Brussels Air. I have never done a connecting flight before, and personally speaking, I found it stressful. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough time to get my luggage, get to the correct terminal, check-in for my flight with Brussels Air and arrive at the right gate. I was so stressed that day. My stress levels went up when I tried to check into Brussels Air when the check-in desk was having problems with the recently installed electronic passport readers. Still, when I look back on the situation, it was an adventure in itself. The staff were accommodating, friendly and patient with the passengers. As it turned out, I had plenty of time, and when I got to my gate, I was able to relax, take a breath and enjoy breakfast. Options for breakfast were plenty, there was “Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar,” “London’s Pride by Fuller,” “YO!” Sushi, and much more. What did I choose?? Sushi for breakfast lol, in my defence, it was closer to 11:00AM when I ate. After a quick bite of sushi, I went down to the gate to board my flight to Brussels.
The 54-minute flight to Brussels went by without a hitch, a little turbulence but nothing major. Upon landing in Brussels, I went through security very quickly and searched where the luggage could be picked up. Oh, my goodness, I got lost trying to find it. Not that the airport was confusing, I just kept getting turned around. Our luggage was being unloaded at belt 10, and do you think I could find belt 10 nope, and here I kept walking right by it like 3 times. When I finally found belt 10, I learned that our luggage was delayed. No one could figure out why it was delayed but that it was still in the cargo hold of the aircraft – I found it funny. In my opinion, Brussels airport is really easy to navigate, and everyone is willing to help those who need it. When you are about to leave the airport, some signs telling travellers to take authorized taxis only. As Uber was just starting out, the government was concerned travellers would be taken advantage of. I made my way to the Taxi Stand. I was shortly escorted to an awaiting taxi, which would take me to my accommodations for the week – Jacques Brel Youth Hostel. -Note: Make sure to have exact change for taxi’s as most do not carry change.
Jacques Brel Youth Hostel
Staying at the Jacque Brel Youth Hostel was needless to say quite the experience. Before my arrival, I received an email inviting me to the hostels weekly welcome BBQ, where there was plenty of food and music to enjoy while mingling with fellow travellers. I thought it was very kind to send out an email letting their guests know there would be a BBQ for everyone to enjoy. The staff at the hostel are friendly, giving guests a quick tour of the main floor, showing where the bar was, the internet lounge and the tourist information billboard and wall. After being shown around and paying in advance are you are given your room key. When staying at a hostel, it is not uncommon to have to pay upfront. I did find out the hard way towels are not supplied and are rented by the day at 3 Euros per sheet. My advice is to stay at youth hostels while travelling be sure to pack towels to avoid the rental fees. My private room was located on the first floor overlooking the open-air courtyard below. The room was perfect for a solo traveller, there was 1 twin bed a little table to place your belongings and cubbies on a wall that acted as a dresser. The private washrooms are very modern in design. The pedestal sink has a cabinet with enough room for your toiletries and a massive shower with a rainforest showerhead. After settling in, I decided to lay low for the rest of the day and plan how I was going to spend my week in this beautiful city.
Time to get out and see the City
On day 2, I jumped out of bed, ready to hit the ground running. First and foremost, Belgians do not eat waffles for breakfast. I was expecting something like scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, cereal, toast etc. something you would get in North America. Instead, what I found for breakfast was assorted fruits (apples, pears and oranges), juices, different slices of bread, cheeses, hams, jams and chocolate spread. Who doesn’t love a country where they insist you have chocolate for breakfast?
My primary mode of transportation in Brussels was the hop-on-hop-off bus. I was a very anxious and nervous first-time solo traveller; The 24-hour hop-on-hop-off ticket will set you back 23.00 Euros. The City Sightseeing Bus has 2 lines, the Atomium line. This line will take around 75 minutes to complete without hopping off, with 12 stops ranging from the trendy shopping areas, the Brupack Park (water park and mini Europe park), the Atomium, the Royal Serres with views of the official Belgian Royal Residence and much more. Line 2 is also 75 minutes in length with 13 stops, including the antique market, Palace of Justice, Museums, The Parlamentarium, and the European District Parks, including restaurants, cafes and much more. Each of the bus lines offers its own unique perspective of the city and the “communities” it drives thru.
The Grand Place
After going around both lines and getting an idea of my surroundings, I decided to explore the Grand Place. The Grand Place is very popular with locals and tourists alike. Surrounded by Guild Houses, City Hall and Maison du Roi (Brussels City Museum). Centuries-old beer bars lay
hidden down alleys, and restaurants serving steamed mussels’ line narrow Rue des Bouchers. The stately 19th-century Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert arcade houses luxury boutiques, clockmakers and chocolate shops. When you first walk into the Grand Place, you can’t help but be in awe of the beauty of the square, the buildings are gothic-looking and believe it or not they are only a couple of hundred years old. The original buildings were destroyed when the French invaded the city in 1695. When the French were later driven out, the buildings were rebuilt. Each building is adorned with façades representing what the original building was used for. Accented with gold, which is meant to bring an element of grandeur.
After spending the afternoon exploring the many alleyways, museums, boutiques, it was time for dinner. One of the many restaurants that caught my eye while I was exploring the area was the Brussels Grill Restaurant near Grand Place. The Brussels Grill has been the leader among steakhouses in Brussels since 2004. I was very fortunate to be able to get a table – since it is located at the Grand Place, it tends to be very busy and hard to get a table. The menu is in English and French, so it is effortless in reading the list. There is plenty of options for everyone. My choice of meal was the Ribeye steak, a side order of frieten (fries) with a glass of red wine. Everything was perfect – I kind of wish I had taken a picture of it. The meal was an ideal way to end my day at Grand Place.
Burparck and Mini Europe
Burparck, Brussels, Belgium is home to the famous Atomium. The Atomium is a landmark building initially constructed on the Heysel Plateau for the 1958 Brussels World Expo (Expo 58). It is built in the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. With stairs, escalators and a lift located in the central, vertical tube allows access to the five spheres, which contain exhibit halls and other public spaces. At the top is a restaurant that has a panoramic view of Brussels. At the foot of the Atomium is Mini Europe Park. It is the only park that will allow you to visit all of Europe in a couple of hours. Within the park, there are several places to stop and get a bite to eat, grab a drink, or relax and watch people. Mini Europe has reproductions of monuments in the European Union on display, with roughly 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented. The park contains live-action models such as trains, mills, an erupting Mount Vesuvius, and cable cars. A few of the unique sights you will see include: Adolphe Bridge, Luxembourg City, Windmills, Kinderdijk, Hoensbroek Castle, The Blue Church in Bratislava, Traditional village of the Algarve, Brandenburg Gate, Parliament buildings of London, the Eiffel Tower, Traditional Village Santorini, a piece of the Berlin Wall and more. My favourite was the Pompeii area. When you arrive at Mini Pompeii, you stand on a unique floor, press a button, and the ground starts to shake, then a low rumbling noise starts from under your feet. It isn’t hard to imagine this would’ve been similar to what the citizens of Pompeii would have experienced before Mount Vesuvius erupted, spitting ash and lava on the unexpecting city below. If you have the opportunity to visit Brussels, I highly recommend making a stop at Mini Europe. It really is a unique day out. Don’t forget your swimsuit there is a waterpark at the location as well.
Comics, Parliament and Manneken Pis?!
What do you think of when you hear about comic books? I automatically think of Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, etc., so I was a bit on the fence when I found myself entering the Belgian Comic Strip Center. The museum in Brussels dedicated to Belgian comics. Initially, the museum would be a homage to Hergé, it was later suggested to honour the entire
Belgian comics industry. Within an Art Nouveau decor, Belgium has been honouring the creators and heroes of the 9th Art for more than 25 years. Inside you will find TinTin and, the Smurfs leading the way towards permanent exhibitions and temporary exhibitions. Comic lovers of all ages are sure to enjoy themselves in this very unique museum. After visiting the comic strip center, I hopped back on the bus and headed towards the European Parlamentarium.
The European Parlamentarium is a visitor centre with multimedia guides that lead visitors to the European Parliament’s heart, explaining the path towards European
cooperation. I started my tour through European history, and how it integrated, afterwards there is a Parlamentarium cinema where you can get a 360° view of Europe and of its Parliament. You will get to know the members of Parliament and hear what challenges they face in the future. If you have an interest in history and or politics, this a great place to visit with interactive floor maps, interactive exhibits and more. A five-minute walk away is the Mur de Berlin. This a piece of the Berlin wall with a portrait of John F. Kennedy. I enjoyed the short stroll over to see the Mur de Berlin; when I arrived, I was informed that the piece was undergoing restoration work and would be returned shortly. The monument was inaugurated on November 9, 2015 (after my visit). It now stands in a glass display, protected from the elements, and is a perfect selfie opportunity. The rest of my day was spent wandering thru Parc Leopold enjoying the beautiful sunny weather and people watching.
One of my favourite statues I saw and believe me, there were plenty around Belgium, has to be the Manneken Pis. This famous landmark (24 in) bronze fountain sculpture is located in Brussels’ center. It is of a little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. A five-minute walk from the Grand Place, at the junction of Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat and the pedestrian Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat, you will find this cheeky statue. Although it is small and situated on the side of a building, you won’t miss it as there is always a large crowd of people trying to get the perfect picture. The Manneken Pis was made by Brussels’ sculptor Hieronimus Duquesnoy the Elder (1570–1641); it was probably cast and installed in 1620. The current statue is a replica that dates from 1965, and the original is kept in the Brussels City Museum. The figure is said to embody the Belgian sense of humour (called zwanze) and the Belgian people’s independence of mind.
Well, this seems like an excellent spot to stop. Next week will be the second part of this throwback Thursday as I talk about my side trips to Bruges and Ghent. I will also wrap up my experience with my final thoughts of my short time in Belgium.
Until next week, stay safe stay healthy.
Mary – Traveling Baroness