Last week, I made my way back to the UK from Rotterdam, taking the overland route for a fabulous first class journey by train with Thalys and Eurostar. On the way, I took a leisurely stopover in Brussels for three nights, hoping to explore as much of the city as possible. In spite of some pretty bad January weather, it was a fantastic trip.
Having arrived late and tired, I spent most of the first evening enjoying the grandiose surroundings of my hotel, the Royal Windsor Grand Place. I did, however, kick off my explorations with a brief walk out into the freezing cold to admire the stunning Grand Place. Brussels’ central square, the Grand Place or Grote Markt is an absolute beauty, surrounded by staggeringly opulent buildings dating from the 14th century. The elegant historic buildings create an overwhelming scene of grandeur which is hard to forget; the glittering spire of the Town Hall lit up against the night sky left a lasting impression, as did the ornate, castle-like façade of the dark grey Broodhuis.
By day, the square seemed even more beautiful. As the ideal starting point for an exploration of Brussels, most of my days began at the Grand Place, and over three days I saw it under light snow, twinkling in sunlight against a vivid and icy blue sky, huddled beneath moody grey clouds, even in rain… and no matter the weather it was always incredibly beautiful. A blend of Baroque, Gothic, Neogothic and Neoclassical architecture, with rich carvings, medieval banners, ornamental gables, gargoyles and saints, gilded façades and gold-filigreed rooftop ornaments, the square was breathtaking and almost magical, a sumptuously European setting which kept drawing me back time and again.
Around the Grand Place, I explored narrow cobbled streets and impasses (medieval cul de sacs) lined with chocolate stores, taverns, breathtaking street art, incredible-smelling waffle shops and boutiques busting with Brussels lace. One such road led me to the city’s most famous resident, the Manneken Pis. Literally “Little man Pee” in Dutch, this cheeky bronze sculpture of a naked boy urinating into a fountain is an absolute favourite with tourists. A city icon, the Manneken Pis dates from 1618 or 1619, and there are multiple legends about it’s origins, several of which were outlined in the Brussels City Museum, where the entire upper floor was dedicated to the little naked man. My favourite version is that the statue commemorates a young boy who saved the city by extinguishing a bomb with a timely wee – the hero!
Housed in my personal favourite building on the Grand Place, the imposing dark grey structure of the Maison du Roi or Broodhuis, the Brussels City Museum was one of the city’s more interesting historical museums. A diverse collection of tapestries, stone carvings, china, paintings and lace told the history of Brussels, all within the gorgeous surrounds of the house itself, where a particular highlight is the incredible set of stained glass windows lining the stairway. Upstairs, a whole floor is dedicated to a permanent exhibition of the Manaken Pis’ wardrobe. Yes, the iconic statue may spend most of the year in his birthday suit, but on very special occasions like festivals and official visits, he does like to get dressed up suitably. The range of over 900 outfits, some of which were over 60 years old, included football kits, the uniforms of the Belgian armed forces, beekeeper, leather craftsman, Obelix, and a cosmonaut – but the very best were those used to honour visitors from foreign countries. I loved the diablada, a colourful demon from Bolivia, the Bermuda shorts and flower garland for Hawaii, the daimyo from Japan and – best of all – a white Elvis suit for the USA.
While I was in Brussels, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Manneken Pis in costume myself, on Saturday 24th. In honour of the feast day of Sebastian, patron saint of the archers, and of the archery group Francs Archers de Braine Le Château, he dressed in the group’s traditional yellow tunic with red hood, shield, and long bow. Even more luckily, I stumbled upon a small procession of the Francs Archers, from a tavern near the statue to the Town Hall on the Grand Place and back, a colourful and noisy parade involving much singing and blowing of horns, which was a really fun way to kick off my second day in Brussels.
* You can check out www.manneken-pis.be to see when the nude dude will next be in costume.
That morning, I’d woken up to snow which had fallen thick and fast in the European Quarter, where I spent my second night at the tranquil and trendy Silken Berlaymont Brussels hotel. This district was only about a half hour walk from the Grand Place, but it felt like another city altogether, with contemporary architecture, plenty of cool bars and restaurants, and a very European vibe stemming from the presence of the European Parliament and the Commission. Battling the snowy streets, I explored that district a little before being inevitably drawn back to the Grand Place in search of more of the city’s history.
After marvelling at the Mannekin Pis in all his clothed glory, and at the Grand Place glistening damply under a brilliant blue sky – with not a speck of snow left in sight – I headed for the nearest museum looking for a place to warm up. Not expecting very much at all, I popped into the Costume and Lace Museum – which turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole weekend.
Small, dimly lit and intimate, most of the museum’s space is dedicated to temporary exhibitions which display a small part of the enormous and varied collection on rotation. At the moment, until the 19th April 2015, the exhibition is a thirties fashion expo entitle ‘Glamour’, a showcase of some truly gorgeous examples of women’s fashion in that often overlooked decade. With day wear, evening and formal wear, swimsuits and lingerie, accessories, and even wedding dresses on display, as well as a few children’s clothes, the exhibition gave a really interesting insight into the fashion that followed the extravagant flappers of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
During the thirties, a decade of hard times sandwiched between a stock market crash in 1929 and the Second World War, women returned to more discretion and less ostentatious luxury, but also promoted their own femininity with skilful cuts and fabrics used to enhance the female figure. The result is an air of serious glamour and sophistication, with luxurious fabrics, rich colours, and touches of Hollywood. The expo at the Costume and Lace Museum captured the era wonderfully, with some fascinating information supporting the exhibits and some truly beautiful outfits. My personal highlights included a cream and black hostess dress by Madeline Vionnet, queen of the bias cut, and a drop dead gorgeous Chanel dress in cream sequins, with a fabulous open back.
A much-needed coffee and – finally – my first actual Belgian waffle, constituted lunch, after which I battled my way through the biting wind towards the trendy, artistic neighbourhood of Sablon – an Epicurean district which prides itself on being one of the ‘posher’ parts of Brussels. Along the way, I had fun searching out some of the fantastic murals of the Brussels Comic Strip Route that are dotted around the city.
The magnificently Gothic church of Notre-Dame du Sablon, breathtaking against a bright blue sky, was the focal point of the district, surrounded by incredible boutique stores, art galleries, high-end chocolatiers like Wittamer and Marcolini, antique shops and classy cafés. As it was a Saturday, I was also lucky enough to visit the antiques market which takes place in Grand Sablon square every weekend, the Marché des Antiquaires, which was great to browse in spite of the cold. Getting in the spirit of the neighbourhood, I also swung by one of the trendy contemporary art galleries, La Galerie Huberty Breyne on the Place du Grand Sablon, which was hosting a free Japanese art exhibition featuring some erotically charged manga-inspired drawings and paintings.
From Sablon, it was just a quick walk to the Parc de Bruxelles and the Palais Royale. Under the white snow, still unbroken in places, both of these were absolutely beautiful. In the palace grounds, I spent a while browsing the exhibits at the BELvue Museum, which tells the history of Brussels and contained some interesting information about King Leopold II’s colonisation of the Congo – something I’ve been interested in since reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River.
Downstairs, I also explored the Coudenberg; an archaeological site of the former palace of Brussels. The maze of underground passageways and ruined rooms was fun to explore, but not exactly my cup of tea; to anyone more interested in architecture or archaeology than me, I’m sure it would be a far more interesting experience.
The last stop on my final day, with just half an hour to closing time, was the Musical Instruments Museum. Another surprising highlight for me, I only really stopped in because I happened to find myself right next to it, but again discovered a brilliant museum which I really enjoyed. Over three floors of a former luxury department store, Old England, the museum houses more than 1500 instruments from around the world. I took a musical journey through the collection, listening to an infrared headset which starts playing when it gets near to one of the instruments – my personal favourite was the collection of bandoneons, an accordion-like instrument hailing from Argentina, which is used for tangos and took me right back to my Buenos Aires trip last year.
Taking the incredible antique lift to the top floor of the museum, I found myself facing one of the best views of Brussels in the city. Perfectly timed, with the sun just beginning to set and the sky a heavenly blend of pinks, purples and golds, this sumptuous view centred on the spire of the Town Hall, it’s gold trim glinting in the fading light. A perfect way to wind off my final night in the city.
By the last morning, I was exhausted. Still, I was up early in the morning and headed straight across town to Koekelberg for one last incredible view from the top of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Koekelberg. Forgetting it was a Sunday, I was a little taken aback by the huge crowd singing a beautiful hymn when I entered, but thankfully visitors are still allowed in during the Sunday service. I made my way to the back of the enormous art-deco basilica, lined with a stunning collection of colourful stained glass windows, and headed up in the lift to the external gallery of the building’s dome.
The weather may have taken a turn for the worse, with ferocious winds numbing my fingers until I almost dropped my camera and grey, looming skies killing the visibility, but the view from the top was still absolutely phenomenal. From a height of 52,80m, I looked down on the neat lines of Parc Elisabeth and beyond to the city centre. The gallery runs around the outskirts of the dome, affording 360° views of the city, so I was able to look out to the Atomium – an iconic steel atom sculpture which towers above it’s neighbouring buildings, and to the white, snowy slopes of the hills surrounding the city.
That grey, icy view of one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited in Europe lingered in my mind’s eye as I left Brussels, speeding back to London in the comfort of the Eurostar train (read my review here). What a wonderful way to round off three days in the city.
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Eurostar operates up to 9 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £69. Tickets to any Belgium station start from £79. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2 hours. Tickets are available from eurostar.com or 03432 186 186.
Discover Brussels with the Brussels Card. Starting at 24€ for 24 hours, the card grants you free access to dozens of the city’s top museums and attractions (including those mentioned in this post), as well as free travel on trams, buses, and the underground – and discounts at some top restaurants, bars, and shops. See visitbrussels.be for more.
Bruxelles Info Place (BIP): 2-4 Rue Royal. Open 9am – 6pm (from 10am on weekends).
Hotel du Ville (Town Hall): Grand-Place. Open from 9am – 6pm.