After our four wonderful days in Paris, staying with Arnaud and his family via Couchsurfing, we took an iDBUS to Brussels for the next three days of our final adventure before heading back to Australia.
Couchsurfing in Brussels
We arrived at Gare Bruxelles Midi and made our way to the Metro station next door. We were on our way to another Couchsurfing host who was gracious enough to host for our stay in Brussels. Maïté lived about 15 minutes from the city centre by Metro with her young daughter Johanna, who was only a few months older than Jack. It’s always fantastic when Jack gets to play with other children his own age, and we were excited that he would get to spend a few days playing with a little girl his own age.
Maïté also lived with another family, Andoni and Alice and their two children. They have embarked on many adventures of their own, seven years of riding pushbikes around the world in two separate 3.5 year stints. Their worldwide trek dotted on the map hanging on the wall of their bike shed has to be seen to be believed. We were seriously impressed with where they’d been, especially when you consider they were travelling with children.
Maïté and Alice both took time out of their schedules to show us around Brussels, and it’s always great to get a view about the city from a local. We are incredibly thankful for their generosity hope to return the favour one day should they ever visit Melbourne.
Brussels is underrated
We’d heard many things about Brussels before arriving, but the most overwhelming comment we’d heard was how unattractive it is. Having spent a few days walking the streets, I must say I beg to differ. Yes there are certainly buildings and areas that you shake your head and wonder who a) designed it, and b) approved it. They even have a special term in Belgium for the apparent custom of building a hideously ugly building directly opposite something grand and beautiful – ‘Brussel-isation’! And while they could have put more thought into their town planning at times, Brussels certainly has a cool vibe and a real lived in feel. And of course the food is amazing – waffles, fries, chocolate, beer and plenty of traditional dishes means you’ll enjoy every meal. Just don’t expect to leave Belgium weighing less than when you arrived!
Brussels Free Walking Tour
We’ve done a few ‘free’ walking tours along the way, and our experience in Brussels was probably the best. While ‘free’ walking tours are strictly free, the whole idea is to pay what you think the tour was worth at the end via a tip to the guide. That way the guide really has to work for their money, and you can be part of the tour regardless of your budget. The whole concept is about not missing out because you may not be able to afford the cost of an organisae tour, and we think that’s a noble business concept.
Our guide’s name was Charlie, an English guy who had been living in Brussels for six years. He loved the country so much he’d become a Belgian citizen, and you could tell by the enthusiasm he clearly had for the city he now called home. He was hilarious, informative and passionate, and the 2.5 hours we spent wandering the streets of Brussels was brilliant. He didn’t mind expressing his opinions about the city and Belgium’s history, particularly the reign of Leopold II, and we really appreciated that.
Here are the highlights from our tour of Brussels.
The Grand Place
While Brussels is often called unattractive, almost everyone is in universal agreement when it comes to the Grote Markt. It is without doubt the most beautiful square in Europe, flanked on all four sides by some of the most amazing buildings you’ll ever see. The Town Hall is ultra-impressive, although a little asymmetrical, with it’s enormous 96m tall gothic tower dominating the square. The King’s House directly opposite is now the Brussels City Museum, and is a dark, sinister-looking 18th century neo-gothic building that never actually housed any kings!
Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am-5pm, Thursday 10am-8pm
Cost: €1.50 – €4.00
Street art highlighting Belgium’s comic book fascination
Comic books are a big deal in Belgium, and the evidence is everywhere in the street art. Tin Tin obviously gets loads of airplay, but there are over 50 world famous comics that originated in Belgium. We weren’t convinced when our guide told us everyone in Belgium loves comic books, but everyone we asked confirmed his claims! Take a walk around town and you’ll see fantastic street art everywhere paying homage to the country’s love of comic books.
This statue of a small, peeing boy is a symbol of Brussels, and while the size can be a disappointment, the stories about him are more famous than the statue itself. The most famous legend has it that Duke Godfried II of Brabant, the two-year-old lord of the area in 1142, was placed in a tree to protect him from the imminent battle with the Lords of Grimbergen. Apparently he pissed all over the troops of the Berthouts who were fighting for the Lords, and they subsequently lost the battle. Another story has it a young boy named Juliaanske peed on the burning fuse of explosives wedged into the city walls by would-be attackers in the 14th century. There are other stories but no one knows the real truth. What is true is the city has a full-time costume designer on staff whose sole job is to create outfits for Manneken Pis. He has around 725 costumes for a variety of special occasions, which are kept in the King’s House, but unfortunately he wasn’t in fancy dress on the day we arrived. Nor did he have beer flowing from his manhood which happens occasionally throughout the year, particularly when students are holding events there!
This now empty building is located at Place de la Boursel, the second most important square after the Grand Place. Building started in the 1860’s, and finished in 1873, to cover the River Seine that now runs underneath the city. It is occasionally used for conferences and events, but there have been ideas put forward for it’s continuous use, the best of which is a beer hall featuring many of Belgium’s best beers. The Belgian Stock Exchange is now completely online!
Galeries Royales Saint Hubert
The beautiful glazed shopping arcade is not only incredibly attractive to look at, but also houses many fantastic boutique chocolatiers, clothing stores, jewellers, restaurants, the Cinéma d’Art et Essai, the Galleries themselves, not to mention the Vaudeville Theatre. The six million tourists that visit every year are covered from the notoriously unpredictable Belgian weather by a beautiful glass ceiling.
Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Royal Theatre of the Mint)
This is the leading opera house in Belgium, built in 1700, and was considered one of the most beautiful in Europe at the time. After King William of the Spanish Netherlands lifted the prohibition on the staging of Auber’s opera The Mute of Portici, Belgium’s struggle for independence gained momentum after those in attendance burst into the streets at the end singing songs of nationalism (apparently). Nowadays at La Monnaie (as it’s known) you can catch opera, dance, concerts and other performances all year round.
St Nicolas’ Church
While it’s almost 1,000 years old, the original church is virtually non-existent. A 14th century gothic facade and repairs made after the French bombardment of 1695 has completely changed the original church. In fact, there is still a cannonball from the bombardment still lodged in one of the pillars inside.
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
No we have not made a mistake, this is not Notre Dame is Paris, although you could be mistaken for thinking so. It is a striking resemblance, but the first chapter founded in this church dates back to 1047. It was renovated in the 13th century to reflect the gothic architecture of the time, and the facade was completed in the mid-15th century. It’s now the cathedral of the Archbishop of Michelin-Brussels, and is often used for royal marriages and state funerals.
Royal Palace of Brussels
While it is the official palace of the King and Queen of the Belgians, it is not where they live. The King and his family live in the Royal Palace of Laeken just outside of Brussels. It was at this point where our guide was at his most passionate, even more so than outside the Belgian Federal Parliament where he was explaining the intricacies of trying to run a country divided between the French and Flemish. The Palace is positioned directly opposite Palace of the Nation (Belgian Federal Parliament building) separated by Brussels Park. Our guide told us about the atrocities committed by Leopold II in the early 20th century in the Congo, and how money raised from the sale of rubber and the barbaric treatment of the locals funded the Royal Palace and filled the coffers of the Royal Family.
This historic square is flanked by a range of buildings of great interest. The Church of Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg dominates the square, while other buildings include the main building of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the Magritte Museum and the BELvue Museum. There is a statue of Godfrey of Bouillon, the leader of the first crusade in 1096, riding on horseback in the centre of Place Royale.
Mont des Arts
Located between the Grand Place and he Royal Palace, the Mont des Arts offers excellent views across the city. You can clearly see the famous tower of Brussels Town Hall, while the park features statues of the much loved Royals, King Albert I and his wife Queen Elizabeth. King Albert I and his tiny army withheld the Germans at the start of World War I for 18 days, giving time for the Allies to arrive, while Queen Elizabeth worked as a nurse of the front lines. King Albert I also worked extensively to improve the conditions of working Belgians, and recommended reforms to protect the native population of Belgian Congo after Leopold II’s hideous reign.
Palace of Justice and Marolles
The Palace of Justice is so big you wonder if they actually use all of the rooms inside. At the time it was built it was the biggest building in Europe, and its size is quite imposing. The people going in and out of the building today are most likely lawyers and criminals. It was no doubt built to tower over the poorest part of the city at the time, which no doubt had the most amount of criminals. It was a reminder as to what would happen to you if you broke the law! There were plans to make it even bigger incredibly, and they even knocked down part of the adjacent neighbourhood called Marolles to make room. But the locals took exception to this and fought back, eventually winning their struggle. There is a tall glass elevator taking you from the Palace of Justice down to Marolles, and the area is worth a stroll around the streets as what was once a poor district is now popular with bars, shopping and an awesome flea market.
There are so many other things to see and do in Brussels, that you could spend a couple of weeks here and not get bored. While some may not find it as beautiful as Europe’s most attractive cities, it has some of Europe’s most impressive landmarks. I could sit in the The Grand Place for a week alone and not get sick of it.
Take a look through the our photogallery and see for yourself what Brussels is really like…