diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 14, 2015

You might visit Brussels one day. Here are some things you can do there.

Grand Place/Grote Markt
All roads lead to la Grand Place, at least for tourists. This giant cobbled square is the must-see in the centre of town, thanks mainly to the ring of ornate guildhalls that surrounds it. They date back to the late 17th century, rebuilt all in one go following a French bombardment. Imagine a football pitch with a Baroque touchline, the centre filled with foreigners wandering around with cameras snap snap snap. The lofty pinnacled tower on the south side belongs to the Town Hall, also home to the tourist information office, while the King's House on the opposite side (the one not selling beer or coffee) contains the city museum. Different sides glisten as the sun moves round, and the flower sellers come and go, in case you fancy coming back for a subtly different photo. [6 photos]

Manneken Pis
A couple of minutes down a souvenir-y street brings you to Brussels most famous piss artist. The two-foot high statue of a small boy urinating was first installed almost 400 years ago, and has only been stolen seven times since, meaning that the current manneken is a perfect copy. There's no great miracle regarding his liquid supply - the tube feeding his constant stream is clearly visible. Usually he passes water, but sometimes his feeding tube is connected a beer keg instead and cups are passed out to people in the street. In addition he's often dressed up - hundreds of MP-sized costumes are stored away in readiness - which is why today he's wearing the robes of the Academic Order of Saint-Louis, and on Tuesday he'll be doing a semi-convincing St Patrick. I'm pleased to have seen him on a nude day, for ordinariness' sake, surrounded by hordes of tourists determined to take a selfie of themselves taking the pis. [2 photos]

• A cone of potato chips, or frites, is the savoury snack of choice. Usually with mayonnaise, never vinegar. But the country's Frietmuseum is in Bruges, so we'll move on.
• Waffles are the non-savoury snack of choice, and not just for tourists. A fresh battered rectangle served up in a tray, with a tiny tiny fork stabbed into the top to aid consumption. The basic grid sells for €1, if you know where to look, then toppings include strawberries, chocolate and cream, or all three if your stomach's up to it.
• The other big food in Brussels is chocolate. The number of chocolatiers is high, especially in the narrow medieval streets and elegant arcades. What with Easter coming up, many of their windows are bedecked with brightly wrapped eggs in gift baskets, but in others the emphasis is select-it-yourself luxury truffles. Despite all this Belgium has one of the lowest rates of diabetes in the EU.
• Oh, and beer. They love their beer here, and they brew it well, with an emphasis on lagers and wheat. Stella and Leffe are big, Jupiter is the biggest brand Britons have never heard of, and my favourite name has to be Bofferding (an import from Luxembourg).

• For reasons I was unable to deduce, an awful lot of men and women were going round in matching red fleeces. I thought it might be a uniform, say for local government operatives, but then I spotted other groups in a very specific shade of green, and one of you will know I'm sure.
(Aha, it turns out tens of thousands of trade union workers were in town for an anti-austerity protest, and I completely missed it)

Things I didn't quite get used to: walking out onto striped pedestrian crossings and expecting oncoming traffic to stop (it always did)
Things I didn't quite get used to: knowing which language to start talking in - French or something else? (I usually lapsed into a feeble English instead)
Things I didn't quite get used to: spotting a C&A (still with Clockhouse garment branding) in the main shopping street.

Brussels Metro
It's interesting to compare a system created in the last 50 years with London's more sprawling piecemeal network dating back to a hundred years earlier. The first underground tramways, or 'premetro', arrived in the late 60s, passing beneath the city centre in a long straight tunnel. The first metro line arrived in 1976, and the system's now up to four (one of which, admittedly, is an existing line with a few extra stations at one end). There is a circle line but it's called Line 2, one complete circuit of which takes about 25 minutes. Most stations have a single name but others are titled both in French and in Dutch, which leads to alternating destinations flashing up on the front of certain trains. The Metro's infrastructure has a uniformity you don't get in London, with straight low platforms instead of singular curves, and letterboxy concrete tunnels instead of restrictive tubes. Each underground station has a different artistic theme, from geometric twine patterns to Flemish farmhouses. And the trains are quite old, with more of a New York subway feel than anything TfL. To board you grab a metal handle and the doors open with a muted pneumatic swoosh. But the next train indicators are very clear, with lamps lighting on a board to show where each train has got to, with the number of minutes to go flashed up underneath. A one-day pass for trains, trams and buses costs just €7, which is a proper bargain.

Things that aren't big in Brussels: the river's not a touristy destination in any way.
Things that are cheap in Brussels: everything at the moment, because the euro's weak.
Things I didn't visit in Brussels: any of the museums, not this time (next time a Brussels card will get me in for nothing)

The European Parliament (see Thursday) [8 photos]
The Atomium (see Friday) [20 photos]

Visit Brussels
45 photos of Brussels [slideshow]

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